Four reasons VP Harris is meeting with Mongolia’s prime minister

Mongolia gets a rare slice of the Washington limelight on Wednesday when Vice President Kamala Harris meets with visiting Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erden.

It’s the first time a Mongolian prime minister has visited the United States since 2018, giving the country — whose population of 3.4 million is smaller than Brooklyn’s and whose 2021 GDP of $15 billion was about a quarter of Rhode Island’s — a platform in the U.S. for a day.

Harris and Oyun-Erden will discuss “our economic and commercial relationship … and a range of regional and global issues, including China and Russia,” said a White House official granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record.

The prime minister’s visit aims at “deepening the strategic partnership relationship” with the U.S. by “expanding political, economic, humanitarian and regional cooperation,” the Mongolian Embassy in Washington said in a statement. (He’ll also be meeting with officials from U.S. agencies including USAID and the International Development Finance Corporation).

That’s a bit vague, but the U.S. and Mongolia have some very concrete reasons to talk. Here’s what the meeting is really about:

Getting intel about the neighbors

Landlocked Mongolia is surrounded by Russia and China. That requires the flourishing multi-party democracy to balance cordial relations with Moscow and Beijing while also being able to ink a strategic cooperation agreementwith the U.S. and host trilateral meetings with Seoul and Washington in its capital, Ulaanbaatar.

Given Biden administration concerns that China may provide weapons for Russia’s war on Ukraine — and Mongolia’s positioning as a potential transshipment point for such supplies — expect Harris to press Oyun-Erdene for details of his recent contact with the Chinese and Russian leadership.

Oyun-Erdene met with Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in June and “has been having direct communications with Putin as well,” said Amar Adiya, a former official in Mongolia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Canada-based publisher of the investment newsletter Mongolia Weekly. “Washington wants to hear about the conversations they’re having with those neighbors,” Adiya said.

Mongolia has resisted pressure from its neighbors to depart from its official policy of neutrality and align more closely with Moscow and Beijing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And the U.S. has close links with Mongolia’s military — U.S. forces participated in the annual Khann Quest international military exercise outside of  Ulaanbaatar last month. But State Department concerns about the country’s “widespread” corruption and its network of rail and road routes linking China and Russia make it likely that Harris will press Oyun-Erdene for strict vigilance in preventing possible transfers of Chinese weapons to bolster Russia’s war effort.

Mining, and more mining

Mongolia’s huge reserves of minerals including lithium, copper and graphite will likely also come up. That’s because they’re essential to sustainable energy technologies including electrical storage batteries and solar and wind power. And Beijing is trying to secure access to the lion’s share of those materials from Latin America to Zimbabwe and Congo.

The Biden administration sent a delegation to Mongolia in June to talk up U.S. interest in getting a bigger slice of Mongolia’s exports of those materials. The visit didn’t land any deals, but the Biden administration sees Mongolia as a candidate for the Minerals Security Partnership, an initiative with 14 mostly Western countries to bolster sustainable investment in the mining, processing and recycling of critical minerals.

Mongolia “is very resource rich, but it hasn’t gotten the kind of U.S. and international investment that it could and that’s an important reason why the prime minister is visiting,” said Michael Klecheski, U.S. ambassador to Mongolia from 2019 to 2022.

Getting out the (Mongolian) vote

Mongolians will go to the polls in national elections inthe first half of 2024. And Ouyen-Erdene likely sees valuable political capital in photo ops with Harris and other senior government officials.

That might include pressing his hosts to express support for the Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act. That legislation — most recently introduced in the House in 2021— would boost the country’s economy by allowing duty-free export to the U.S. of some Mongolian apparel and textile products.

For Ouyen-Erdene, his Washington exposure “is very much for domestic consumption — to give more credibility to the prime minister by showing he’s on par with other world leaders,” said Adiya, the former Mongolian diplomat.

Direct flights from the U.S.

Flying from Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar to Washington, D.C., is a pricey test of long haul endurance. Expedia lists only three such flights, two of which have layover times of 10 to 19 hours.

Mongolia’s government is “really focused on” increasing flight availability and reducing layover times for travelers between the two countries, said Piper Campbell, U.S. ambassador in Ulaanbaatar from 2012 to 2015.

“One of the ways for Mongolia to get out of the realities of being a landlocked country is to increase their air connections — if [Ouyen-Erdene] came home with a commitment to that, or even have a commitment to towards a path towards that, that’s something that would be big for them,” Campbell said.

The Biden administration is listening. Ouyen-Erdene and Harris “will sign an Open Skies Agreement which will facilitate air services between Mongolia and the United States,” the White House official said.

The Mongolian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the flight path the prime minister took to get to D.C.

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