How the Mongolians punch above their weight in military diplomacy

How the Mongolians punch above their weight in military diplomacy
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shakes hands with President of Mongolia Khurelsukh in Ulaanbaatar. Guterres visited Mongolia during the 20th anniversary of Mongolian participation in UN peacekeeping operations in 2022. / UN RCO / G. Erdenetuya
By Antonio Graceffo in Ulaanbaatar February 8, 2024

Although it lacks the economic and political power to compete with its two giant neighbours China and Russia, Mongolia is leveraging its unique military heritage to build bridges with countries as far away as the United States and India. When it comes to military diplomacy, Mongolia punches well above its weight.

Military diplomacy is the strategic deployment of armed forces to attain diplomatic goals and strengthen international relations. This involves leveraging military capabilities, including defence cooperation, joint military exercises and military exchanges, to enhance a nation's diplomatic influence, establish partnerships and contribute to regional or global stability.

Mongolia's population is only 3.25mn-strong, with 35,000 active-duty military personnel and 135,000 reserves. Despite the country's small size, Mongolia has participated in more than 20 UN peacekeeping operations worldwide and is ranked as the 23rd largest contributor to UN peacekeeping. Mongolian peacekeepers have served in South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In early January, Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres appointed Mongolian Major General Erdenebat Batsuuri as Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.

Medical UN peacekeepers from Mongolia unpack deliveries during free malaria testing they held for patients at Bentiu Hospital during the rainy season in South Sudan (Credit: Peter Bateman, UNMISS).

Nearly 10,000 Mongolian peacekeepers, including over 900 women, have served in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), protecting civilians and supporting the delivery of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people. Medical peacekeepers from Mongolia have also provided free malaria testing for patients at Bentiu Hospital during the dangerous rainy season.

Mongolia has an exceptionally high percentage of female peacekeepers. A noteworthy female soldier is Sergeant Battsetseg Baatarkhuu (seen above (photo credit: UNMISS)) a former Olympic runner, who served three tours in Sudan.

A Mongolian soldier explains to some American marines how to fire a Soviet-made-RPG during a military drill (Timothy A. Streaty, US Marines, public domain).

Military diplomacy is seen as a crucial component of Mongolia’s “Third Neighbour Policy”. As with any diplomatic overtures beyond the region, Mongolia must always be careful to maintain the delicate balance in its relations with its primary economic and defence partners, China and Russia. Nevertheless, Mongolia has managed to steadily increase its military diplomatic ties with the US through joint military exercises, training programmes for Mongolian military personnel, cybersecurity assistance, equipment donations for specific purposes like peacekeeping and cooperation on counterterrorism and cyber threats.

At the same time, Mongolia is increasing its engagement not only with the US but also with other Western partners through joint training exercises. In 2022, Mongolia hosted the first-ever international conference of female peacekeepers under UN Security Council Resolution 1325, “Women, Peace, and Security.”

By far, the most significant multinational joint training exercise for Mongolia’s military diplomacy is Khaan Quest, jointly organised by the Mongolian Armed Forces and the US Indo-Pacific Command. Since 2003, this annual event has seen the participation of over 18,000 military personnel from 67 countries. Khaan Quest is part of the US-Mongolia Strategic Partnership but it is also a way for Mongolia to connect with other democratic nations such as Canada, South Korea, Germany, France and Japan. India, China’s frequent rival, has also participated in Khaan Quest.

For 15 years, India and Mongolia have also held a bilateral exercise called Nomadic Elephant, an apt name as elephants hold special cultural and religious significance in both nations.

While peacekeeping and joint training remain cornerstones, Mongolia has actively expanded its military ties through strategic partnerships with Nato. Mongolian troops participated in the Kosovo Force (KFOR) intervention, as well as two missions in Afghanistan: the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), combatting the Taliban, and the Resolute Support Mission, providing training and assistance to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF).

Additionally, Mongolia hosts the Five Hills Peace Support Operations Training Centre (FHPSOTC). Funded by the US Department of State’s Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), the centre provides training for Mongolian military personnel participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Mongolian and Chinese soldiers assess a "battlefield situation" during a joint military exercise (Credit: Chen Qi,

As important as closer ties with the West are, Mongolia, it bears repeating, is always careful not to alienate China and Russia. Mongolia regularly participates in the Selenge, a Mongolia-Russia joint tactical drill. And last November, China and Mongolia conducted the Border Defence Cooperation-2023 joint drill in the border region adjacent to Changji Hui autonomous prefecture in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The focus of the drill was on collaborative efforts conducted by China and Mongolia in combatting border crimes. In 2021, Mongolia also participated in joint exercises in China’s Henan province, along with the militaries of Pakistan and Thailand.

With military diplomacy, as with all forms of diplomacy, Mongolia has managed to strike a remarkable balance, actively engaging with Western partners while maintaining those close relations with China and Russia. Mongolia’s cooperation with Nato is particularly remarkable, given Moscow’s historical disdain for the organisation, and the fact that Vladimir Putin used Nato expansion as justification for his country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In recent years, Beijing has also expressed its dislike of Nato as the organisation’s mandate has shifted and may now extend to confronting China in the Pacific.

Mongolia has carved out a unique space on the global stage as it continues to navigate the shifting sands of international relations. Its Third Neighbour Policy and military diplomacy are a testament to the country’s resilience and its refusal to yield sovereignty. 

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA, is an economist and China analyst. He has spent over 20 years living in Asia, including seven years in China, three in Taiwan and four in Mongolia. He conducted post-doctoral studies in international trade at the School of Economics, Shanghai University, and holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport, and a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio has authored seven books on Asia, with a focus on the Chinese economy.