Beyond Pompeo’s Mongolia Miss: A Firm Foundation for US-Mongolia Relations


Photo and title of Will Heidlage

The news that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not be stopping in Mongolia on his Asia trip was surely disappointing to leadership in Ulaanbaatar, disappointment compounded by the suddenness of the cancellation, which came just hours before his departure. Pompeo’s trip would have served as the highest level envoy the Trump administration had yet sent to Mongolia, and the first time a secretary of State visited since John Kerry did in 2016. The meeting would have given Mongolia a chance to press its interests, particularly around trade, and more closely align with the United States’ strategic positioning vis-à-vis China in the region.


It’s easy to find concern in the cancellation and infer that Washington, and the Trump administration in particular, is discounting the value of the bilateral relationship and what Mongolia can bring to the table as America looks at its array of alliances and partnerships in Northeast Asia. The lack of high-level official visits throughout Trump’s four-year term is the most visible display of what some perceive as the slow degradation of alignment between the two countries since their apex during the George W. Bush administration.


Those concerns should be allayed in part for several reasons. First, Pompeo’s cancellation was for genuinely extraordinary reasons—the secretary was responding to one of the most acute, if brief, emergencies this administration has faced during its four years in President Trump’s hospitalization. More importantly, Mongolia remains well-positioned to press its interests and serve as a key partner achieving both the Trump administration’s foreign policy objectives, should it win another term, or a Biden administration’s, should the election swing left.


Mongolia’s interests lay firmly in reducing its economic dependency on China for both economic and geostrategic reasons. This is reflected in the primary deliverable Ulaanbaatar seeks in any forthcoming high-level meeting with American officials, momentum behind the Third Neighbor Trade Act sitting in U.S. congress. The trade deal would reduce import duties on key Mongolian exports to the United States, which would not only provide more liberal trade between the two countries but also expand access to Mongolia’s third largest export market as it fights overreliance on China. This would improve Mongolia’s economic health and sustainability, and add insulation to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing’s oft-flexed economic sharp power.


Despite the general antipathy both parties currently hold towards free trade agreements, the Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act should not meet resistance for the reasons that other deals have. For Trump, the United States notably maintains a trade-in-goods surplus with Mongolia, and even as the administration has moved away from multilateral deals, bilateral trade agreements have been in vogue, and deals have materialized in Asia with Japan and China and progress made with Taiwan.


For a Biden administration, Mongolia can underscore the focus of the Third Neighbor Trade Act on improving labor and environmental standards in the Mongolian cashmere processing chain. The agreement would drive profits away from low-cost Chinese processors back to Mongolia to—with the help of OPIC—reinvest in and upgrade domestic plants. These features are closely aligned with the labor and environmental principles outlined in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other “modern” trade agreements Biden has previously supported, while including few of the politically problematic provisions related to intellectual property and pharmaceuticals.


More strategically, Mongolia’s and the United States’ alignment on values is growing, not waning. In July, President Battulga secured a Declaration of Strategic Partnership with the United States, formally elevating the relationship above and beyond where it was even when President George W. Bush made a State visit to the country in 2005. As Beijing acts with increasingly authoritarian tendencies towards ethnic minorities domestically and its near neighbors abroad, the U.S-Mongolia strategic partnership will become more essential to U.S. policy implementation in Northeast Asia.


China’s recent education reforms in Inner Mongolia rhyme powerfully with its decade-plus-long program to marginalize ethnic Uyghurs and their culture in Xinjiang, which has since evolved into cultural genocide. In his interview with NHK while in Japan, Pompeo made this link explicit, stating, “The people inside China, too, are being treated very badly for the vast – the forced sterilization of women in Xinjiang or the inability of Mongolians inside of China to simply be who they want to be. The answer to that is to be forceful in our response, to be direct about our expectations, and to work with like-minded nations all across the world…” As U.S.-China relations deteriorate over human rights abuses, Mongolia’s grassroots, vocal support of Inner Mongolian culture will bring the two countries closer.


Finally, Mongolia’s post-Soviet successful transition to, and since vibrant and active democracy, will continue to provide a firm foundation for bilateral relations based on shared values and interests. The current administration is actively seeking out partners in Asia that are willing to share more of the burden to maintain global peace and prosperity, and Mongolia’s readiness and willingness to step into this role is evident and recognized.

In this context, the lack of a high-level meeting with a U.S. official is a missed opportunity, but not a reflection of the trajectory of U.S.-Mongolian relations, which is upwards. Mongolia should continue to seek opportunities to encourage the passage of the Third Neighbor Trade Act and continue to support efforts that reflect the two countries’ shared values, and anticipate dividends from these efforts regardless of the November election outcome.


Will Heidlage is a Senior Director at BowerGroupAsia, where he analyzes the impact of politics in Northeast Asia on the commercial environment.

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