Over the last few months, Mongolia has hosted or taken part in several multi-national military exercises with the aim to develop the Mongolian army’s peacekeeping abilities, as well as a way to leverage military-to-military ties as a tool of diplomacy.
On August 10–13, Mongolia held the annual peacekeeping exercise, Khaan Quest, which opened in the presence of Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the United States Pacific Command (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAgZtUB4MJE). Khaan Quest 2013 adjourned on August 14 with remarks from another high-ranking military official—Lieutenant General Terry G. Robling, the commander of the US Marine Forces in the Pacific (http://www.marforpac.marines.mil/News/NewsArticleDisplay/tabid/919/Article/148286/marforpac-commander-security-stability-prosperity-key-as-khaan-quest-2013-comes.aspx). About 1,000 troops from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, India, Nepal, South Korea, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam took part in this peacekeeping field training exercise, while China, Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan sent observers. The importance of Khaan Quest goes beyond the direct military training it provides for Mongolia’s soldiers. At the request of the Mongolian government, the US has provided the country assistance in transforming its former Soviet-style military training field (known as the Five Hills Training Center) into a regional peacekeeping training center. And in addition to having been the site of this year’s Khaan Quest exercise, Five Hills also hosts bilateral training exercises with major powers like the US, China, India, Germany as well as minor powers such as Belgium and Qatar. Today, Mongolia’s Five Hills is the only multi-national peacekeeping training center in Northeast and Central Asia.
The following month, on September 16 and 17, the Mongolian military began two separate exercises with the Russian and Chinese armed forces, respectively. About 300 military personnel of the Russian Eastern Military District, along with 800 Mongolian troops participated jointly in the Selenge 2013 counter-terrorism tactical exercise (Press Release, Ministry of Defense of Mongolia, September 16). Annual Russian-Mongolian exercises, which had resumed in 2008, are not confined to a single training center, but rather are held in different locations to support the Mongolian military’s efforts at boosting its armed forces’ maintenance and readiness. For instance, the 2009 exercise, Darkhan-2, was focused on rehearsing the repair and maintenance of military equipment for peacekeeping deployments (RIA Novosti, August 18, 2009; EurasiaNet, August 26, 2009).
In contrast, the next day’s military exercise with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has occurred for the first time in Mongolia. The first bilateral exercise was conducted in China in 2009. This year, 70 PLA military engineering units shared their disaster-relief expertise with their Mongolian counterparts at the Five Hills Peacekeeping Training Center (Xinhua, September 17). Interestingly, as the joint exercise was occurring, the Mongolian defense minister concluded the first-ever agreement with the PLA to develop joint military-technical cooperation in Beijing (Press Release, Ministry of Defense of Mongolia, September 19).
Rather than being signs of geostrategic competition over Mongolia by Washington, Moscow and Beijing, the three recent exercises demonstrated Ulaanbaatar’s active defense diplomacy strategy. All three major powers with which Mongolia held its military drills—the US, Russia and China—are actively supporting Mongolian military’s participation in global peacekeeping operations. Moreover, the recent exercises all contributed to regional confidence building measures.
Years of holding such bilateral and multilateral exercises have helped the Mongolian armed forces to modernize, raise their operational capabilities, and develop the skills necessary to deploy its peacekeepers to foreign theaters. Within just a short period of time (2003–present), Mongolia has become the second largest troop contributor from Northeast and Central Asia to United Nations peacekeeping missions, with 927 soldiers stationed abroad as of August 2013 (http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/contributors/2013/aug13_1.pdf). And over time, Mongolia has deployed over 800 (two rotations per year) military personnel to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan (http://www.isaf.nato.int/images/stories/File/Placemats/2013-08-01%20ISAF%20Placemat-final.pdf). Given Mongolia’s small population size, military, and relatively low GDP per capita, its contributions are impressive.
In return for Mongolia’s previous troop deployments to the war in Iraq and the ongoing mission in Afghanistan, the US provided the country with substantial military training, education and assistance to develop a sizable (2,500 personnel) peacekeeping force, to establish the regional peacekeeping training center, and to build niche capabilities like a field hospital, military police as well as engineering capacities. As a result, the Peacekeeping Training Center is in year-round use by Mongolia in pre-deployment training, as well as for bilateral and multilateral peacekeeping training. Furthermore, a Mongolian-run field hospital (Level II) has been operating in Darfur since November 2010 (http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/VoD_En_May_2013_web.pdf). The Mongolian military now has enough cadre and equipment to run its own self-sufficient peacekeeping-related training. Meanwhile, Mongolia’s steadfast deployments to Afghanistan with German, US, and Belgium militaries contributed to Ulaanbaatar’s new membership status in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as well as partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (see EDM, May 9).
Gradually overcoming its suspicions over the regularly held Mongolian-US military exercises, the PLA has itself begun to support Mongolia’s peacekeeping ambitions. In November 2011, the PLA constructed the recreational facility, “Complex for Peacekeeping.” The facility is used for Mongolian peacekeepers to overcome post-deployment stress after returning home (Press Release of the Government of Mongolia, November 15, 2011). The Mongolian military also receives military engineering equipment from China for its newly established peacekeeping-designated construction-engineering battalions. Similarly, Mongolia obtained diesel armored vehicles and equipment through Russian military assistance (RIA Novosti, February 17). This cooperation is reflected in Mongolia’s strategic partnership declarations with Russia and also China (http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2006/12/08/2145_type82914type82915_115151.shtml; People’s Daily Online, June 17, 2011).
Mongolia’s defense and security policies are not being driven in response to the geostrategic interests of its neighbors or international great powers. Rather, the US, Russia and China are attracted to Mongolia’s non-threatening, sustained interest in taking part in global peacekeeping efforts. And developing those skills is helping Mongolia to modernize its armed forces, raise its international profile and increase the country’s importance in the eyes of foreign powers and institutions. US cooperation with the Mongolian military seems to be limited to developing Mongolia’s peacekeeping capabilities for taking part in UN- and coalition-led missions abroad. China and Russia are also responding favorably to Mongolia’s defense diplomacy, though respectfully of each other’s concern for maintaining this country’s continued neutrality. Nevertheless, Russia has resumed intense bilateral military interactions, including high-level talks, military assistance (e.g., education, training, hardware), and annual military exercises that stress interoperability and readiness. On the other hand, Mongolia’s approach to cooperation with China is more cautious and gradual in order to overcome their decades-long history of hostility. Overall, Mongolia’s defense diplomacy, whose stated aim is developing Mongolia’s international peacekeeping capabilities, has contributed to positive, balanced relations with the major powers and gained support from each of them.