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  • Writer's pictureEwen Levick

Why Mongolia matters to Joe Biden

On a Monday in the late summer of 2011, Joe Biden stepped out of a plane in Mongolia. He was met by then-Prime Minister Sukhbaatar and taken on a whirlwind day that included archery and wrestling. He was also given a horse, which he named ‘Celtic’ for his Irish roots.

He’s since chosen ‘Celtic’ as his Secret Service codename for his presidency, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed in Mongolia. There are high hopes that a Biden administration will be a positive for Mongolia’s relationship with the US.

Vice President Joe Biden and former Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold walk down the red carpet during an arrival ceremony at Ghengis Khan International Airport in 2011. (White House Archives)
Vice President Joe Biden and former Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold walk down the red carpet during an arrival ceremony at Ghengis Khan International Airport in 2011. (White House Archives)

In an August op-ed, a former Speaker of the Great State Khural, Zandaakhuu Enkhbold, noted the codename story and said the partnership between Mongolia and the US is ‘one of the most underrated.’

“Both Democrats and Republicans have warmly welcomed us on the Capitol Hill,” Enkhbold wrote. “This was proof that our two countries have grown stronger and closer based on common strategic interests, shared democratic values, and principles of sovereignty. Achieving tangible results from this partnership should be the priority of both our nations’ leaders.”

There are a few reasons why Mongolia’s leaders should be optimistic.

First, Joe Biden has said he wants to try and re-join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP is now known as the CPTPP – say that five times fast - which is a huge trade deal taking in countries around the Pacific rim. Mongolia isn’t a member, but the lesson here is that Biden believes trade is an important part of international relations.

This is a good omen for the Mongolian trade deal currently sitting in the US Congress, although a Trump re-election wouldn’t necessarily have changed its fortunes seeing as the US has a trade surplus with Mongolia (which was one of Trump’s hobby horses). But unlike Trump, Biden’s leadership is also a good omen for US-Mongolian economic relations beyond the scope of the bill, particularly in green energy.

Second, Biden was vice-president when Mongolia sent troops to Afghanistan in 2009.

This means Mongolian officers would’ve built personal relationships with American commanders who may now have risen through the ranks towards top positions under Biden as commander-in-chief. Those kind of personal relationships matter, albeit in unseen ways.

Importantly, Joe Biden’s likely pick for Defense Secretary is Michele Flournoy. In 2009, she was undersecretary of defense for policy and helped shape the US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan at the exact same time that Mongolian troops deployed to serve alongside US soldiers. If she’s appointed, Mongolia’s reputation will certainly be well-established in the Pentagon.

Third, Mongolia is becoming more strategically important for the US, no matter who is in the White House.

It is one of the only true democracies in Asia, something Joe Biden pointed out when he visited in 2011. This makes Mongolia a natural partner in American efforts to contain China, and those efforts won’t go away with a Biden administration.

Flournoy has said that the US needs to take a hard line on China, and she’s also said that “America’s best asset in the region is the other nations who can jointly pressure Beijing.”

Mongolia is one of those nations: it is one of China’s top sources of coal, a potential transit route for Siberian energy and a key stop on Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road’, a huge infrastructure plan to better link China with Europe. It also has the potential to fuel China’s renewable energy future through lithium deposits in the Gobi desert.

Finally, if US relations with China deteriorate, Washington will need a diplomatic ‘back door’ to conduct negotiations with Beijing out of public view. Mongolia would be a strong candidate: it is one of the only countries – possibly the only country – to maintain decent relations with Russia, the US and China at the same time. It is seen as neutral ground, and as the Asia-Pacific becomes more polarized, neutral ground will be a hot commodity.

However, there is one major stumbling block.

Mongolia has yet to congratulate Biden for winning the election. It is one of only a few countries - including Russia, Turkmenistan, Myanmar and Syria - that's stayed silent.

So what's stopping Mongolia? Maybe the country's leaders are waiting for the electoral college to certify the election in mid-December. But this would be globally unusual - even China has called Biden, although it waited a while.

Enkhbold ended his op-ed by hoping for another visit from Biden. There are reasons to believe the wish may be granted - as long as Mongolia quickly picks up the phone and dials his number.


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