Ulan Bator (AFP) – Pungent cheese curds and near-naked wrestlers greeted US Secretary of State John Kerry during his flying visit to Mongolia Sunday, with the envoy hailing it as an “oasis of democracy” sandwiched between China and Russia.
Kerry was following in the footsteps of his predecessor and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden as part of the US pivot to Asia.
He spent several hours in the homeland of the legendary and brutal conqueror Genghis Khan, taking in the delights of Mongolian culture in the capital Ulan Bator.
Under clear blue skies and on rugged plains Kerry enjoyed a festival featuring traditional nomadic pursuits. He even tried his hand at archery but missed his target.
America’s top diplomat praised the country’s decision to embrace democracy a little more than a quarter of a century ago.
“The bottom line is very simple: Mongolia has made remarkable progress for a young democracy even as it strives to strengthen its institutions and to keep up with the hopes of its people,” he said.
“You got China on one side of you and Russia on the other side of you, and there are always a lot of pressures. And here you are in this oasis of democracy, fighting for your own identity even as you hold on to great traditions.”
Kerry was also treated to musical performances native to Mongolia, enjoying a break from crisscrossing the globe as a peacemaker in international hotspots.
– Mineral wealth –
The former communist nation of about three million people, once a close ally of the Soviet Union, was “reaching out in a significant way” in its relationships with other countries including Afghanistan, Burma and Myanmar, he said.
Kerry added: “I understand with your geography you have automatically significant relationships with both China and Russia. But you’ve chosen actively to be a democracy and you’re pursuing that with vigour.?
Mongolia, which says the US is its “most important third neighbour”, depends on China for more than 60 percent of its trade.
China receives around 90 percent of Mongolia’s exports, also supplying it with more than one-third of its imports. Mongolia also relies on Russia for 90 percent of its energy supplies, according to US State Department information.
It possesses enormous mineral resources including deposits of gold, copper and uranium, still largely untapped.
Its mineral resources saw the country achieve over 17 percent growth in 2011, but that has since drastically fallen to under three percent last year along with plummeting metal prices and capital flight.
Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, one of the country’s key investors, has been hit by rising nationalist sentiment among Mongolians concerned about the growth of foreign firms as well as environmental damage from mining.
In 2012 the country passed a strict law on investment in “strategic” sectors and foreign direct investment collapsed. Parliament has since cancelled the controversial law.
In May Rio Tinto announced it would start work on an expansion of its giant gold and copper Oyu Tolgoi mine after years of gridlock, a huge project requiring a $5.3 billion investment.