Mongolia Using Joint Military Exercises as a Foreign Policy Tool

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Mongolia, historically dominated by either Russia or China, has sought to preserve its independence by holding joint military exercises not only with its former overlords but with Central Asia’s newest interloper, the U.S.
The latest bilateral military exercise, Selenge 2014, kicked off on Aug. 15, the fourth in a series of “Selenge” joint military exercises. According to Russia’s Eastern Military District spokesman Aleksandr Gordeev for the first time Selenge 2014, being held at Munkh Khet, will deploy Mi-24 helicopters from an air base in the Zabaikalye territory. The Russian Armed Forces’ Akatsiia artillery system, Grad multiple launch rocket system and Shilka anti-aircraft system will also participate for the first time. Selenga 2013 was also held in Mongolia, with 300 soldiers from Russia’s Eastern Military District operating in conjunction with 250 troops of the Mongolian Armed Forces.
The “Selenge” military exercises represent only a fraction of the Mongolian military’s involvement with the armed forces of other nations. Mongolian troops also participate in bilateral military exercises abroad. On Aug.6-16, 2012, 38 Mongolian Army soldiers participated alongside 44 Indian Army troops from the Jat Regiment in the eighth round of the “Nomadic Elephant” joint exercise in Belgaum district in Karnataka state, an operation designed to sharpen the troops’ skills in UN peacekeeping missions. The soldiers conducted several counter insurgency and counter terrorism operations. An added benefit of the joint exercise was a number of special sessions designed to assist in modernizing Mongolia’s defense establishment. The first joint Mongolian-Indian exercise was held in 2004.
Participation in international peacekeeping exercises has been a key tenet of Mongolian foreign policy since 2002, when Mongolia’s government passed a law allowing Mongolian armed forces to participate in UN-backed and other international peacekeeping operations abroad. Over the past decade, over 9,000 Mongolian troops have served overseas on peacekeeping missions.
In 2003 a Mongolian contingent was sent to Iraq, while in 2005-2006 Mongolian troops participated in the Belgian Kosovo Force (KFOR) contingent. Closer to home, in 2009 Mongolia dispatched 144 soldiers to serve in the International Security assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. In its most recent deployment, in 2012 Mongolia sent peacekeepers to South Sudan.
On Aug. 7 a farewell ceremony was held in Ulaan Bator for the fourth shift of Mongolian troops dispatched to South Sudan. The battalion consisting of 850 peacekeepers is drawn from the National Emergency Management Agency, National Police Agency and the Authority for Border Protection and is unique in that 40 percent of the 850 peacekeepers are women and approximately 40 percent of the men are soldiers and military officers have previous experience in peacekeeping missions.
Besides Afghanistan and South Sudan, Mongolian peacekeepers are currently deployed in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Western Sahara and Liberia.
Sandwiched as it is between Eurasia’s two superpowers, Mongolia has relied on diplomacy and participation in international peacekeeping exercises to maintain its independence under its “Third Neighbor” policy of its building relationships with countries other than Russia and China.
The “Third Neighbor” policy seeks to enhance Mongolia’s strategic relationships with U.S. and other large economies, including Japan, Canada and several countries in Europe. In a 2013 interview, Mongolian Minister of Defense D.Bat-Erdene explained the government’s thinking behind its worldwide peacekeeping deployments, remarking:
“Our strategy is to foster defense relations with many nations around the globe. Our name is now highly praised and well-known among foreign countries, and we are greatly respected. I think we have achieved the highest level of international cooperation compared to other government agencies in Mongolia. All of my predecessors paid special attention to this and contributed their valuable personal efforts. The more friendly and cooperative our relationship is with other countries, the stronger our defense. One proof of this is the annual Khaan Quest multinational peace support operations exercise. To ensure the security of Mongolia, we have the duty to engage in as much defense diplomacy as possible. I firmly believe that what Mongolia is doing is what is best for our country and that the intention for our global outreach is understood well and respected by every country. Having that said, pursuant to the National Security Concept and the Foreign Policy Concept of Mongolia, our priority is to maintain and strengthen our partnership with our two neighbors.”
Nor is the U.S. left out of Mongolian defense planning, as since 2002 U.S. troops have participated in the annual “Khaan Quest” multinational peacekeeping exercises. The Khaan Quest exercise was first launched by the United States Army Pacific Command and the Mongolian Armed Forces in 2002 as a bilateral military exercise, but it became a multinational exercise in 2006. Due to Mongolia’s proximity to China, many military experts previously considered the early Khaan Quest exercises as part of a U.S. strategy to contain Beijing but China’s participation in “Khaan Quest 2014” for the first time, held at Mongolia’s Tavan Tolgoi (Five Hills) training grounds, is now proof of the multinational character of the annual training exercise. Khaan Quest 2014 included more than 1,000 troops, including approximately 300 U.S. military personnel and participants and observers from 23 other countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
The rising importance of Mongolia in Washington’s perceptions was highlighted by the April visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the first visit of a U.S. defense secretary to Mongolia since Donald Rumsfeld’s 2005 tour. For the first time, Mongolia was invited and became a part of the NATO Defense Ministerial Meeting held in October 2012.
In yet another military connection, Mongolia also has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has a distinctly anti-American tinge. In the aftermath of the tragic events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, on July 5, 2005, on the presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan at a SCO summit signed a joint declaration requesting the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition forces to set a date for leaving Central Asia.
Despite the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) drawdown in Afghanistan, one place that SCO forces will apparently not be deployed to is Afghanistan after ISAF complete their drawdown there by the end of the year. While in Oct. 2013 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the development of the situation in Afghanistan clearly shows that Afghan security forces will not be in a position to take control of law and order in the country after the withdrawal of NATO-led forces, on Jan. 15 SCO spokesman Kirill Barsky told a news conference, “The SCO is not prepared to assume the responsibility of ensuring security in Afghanistan itself.”
Mongolia’s diplomatic sleight of hand is impressive, and its government’s commitment to global peacekeeping operations is beyond question, but in light of deteriorating Western relations with Russia and China’s assertions of sovereignty in the south China Sea, it remains to be seen for how much longer Mongolia can continue to juggle commitments as disparate as NATO, the SCO, China, Russia, India and the U.S.
Dr. John C.K. Daly is a non-resident Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Central Asia Caucasus Institute in Washington DC.
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