Aug 2, 2023, 7:32am EDT

Why the U.S. is wooing Mongolia

A view of the Khongoriin Els sand dunes is seen in Umnugobi Aimag, Mongolia, June 29, 2014. Picture taken June 29, 2014.
REUTERS/B. Rentsendorj/File Photo

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The News

The Biden administration is courting mineral-rich Mongolia as it looks to diversify clean energy supply chains and reduce dependence on materials refined in China.

Vice President Harris will host Mongolia’s Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene for a meeting later today, the latest in a string of U.S. engagements with the country sandwiched between two main U.S. adversaries — Russia and China.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby told Semafor the two would talk about a “full range of issues,” including critical minerals and China.

“The Vice President and the Prime Minister will discuss our economic and commercial relationship, including Mongolia’s economic resilience; future cooperation in outer space, including civil and commercial cooperation; addressing the climate crisis; and a range of regional and global issues, including China and Russia,” a White House official said.

The two will also “underscore the importance of strong democratic institutions and rule of law,” the official said.

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The U.S. is under pressure to find critical minerals needed to build electric vehicle batteries, powerlines, undersea cables, and other key facets of the energy transition. Mongolia has a booming mining industry that accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s GDP.

“Most of its exports go to China at the moment and the U.S. … would like to get some of those resources for itself,” said Noah Gordon, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You can’t have an energy transition without critical minerals.”

State Department officials in late June traveled to Mongolia to meet with officials and private sector representatives in an effort to bring more investment in mining and heavy industries. During those meetings, the U.S. and Mongolia signed a memorandum of understanding on critical mineral supply chains in the Pacific.

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As the U.S. is seeking some economic distance from China — or as Biden administration officials put it, “de-risking” — Mongolia has strong economic ties with its neighbor. But Bolor Lkhaajav, a researcher and expert in Mongolian politics, said the U.S. position towards China would not make for any awkward moments during the prime minister’s visit.

“The U.S. understands Mongolia's landlocked position,” Lkhaajav told Semafor. “In a way, it is natural for Mongolia to have strong economic ties with Beijing.”

Lkhaajav said that the prime minister would likely also aim to finalize plans for direct flights between the U.S. and Mongolia on his visit to the U.S., in addition to hammering out additional details for a planned launch of SpaceX’s Starlink internet service in the country.

The White House official confirmed that Harris and Oyun-Erdene will sign an “Open Skies” agreement — which would allow U.S. government-funded travel on Mongolian air carriers — and take steps to expand cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Mongolia.