In response to Moscow's sweeping overtures to China earlier this year, the Monitor has learned that the United States is now negotiating to recognize the Mongolian People's Republic. Long disregarded by the US as a Soviet satellite in the remote heart of inner Asia, Mongolia was suddenly thrust into prominence by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's promise at Vladivostok last July to remove a ``substantial number'' of Soviet troops stationed here -- between 50,000 and 70,000, according to Western military analysts.
The US's interest in Mongolia -- a loyal ally of the Soviet Union which the US has refused to recognize for 55 years -- is a clear signal that Washington is now reconsidering its options in Asia as China appears to move closer to the Soviet Union.
Neither Washington nor Ulan Bator wishes to see a major shift of Soviet troops away from China's borders. Ulan Bator sees the Soviet Army as a needed defense against China. Washington is concerned that Soviet troops released from Asia will be redeployed against NATO troops in Europe.
China has long made the presence of hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops along its northern border one of three ``obstacles'' to normalization with the Soviet Union, the two others being the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Soviet ally Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia.
Given the US's and Mongolia's common interest in Soviet troop deployment in Mongolia, many diplomats say, the prospects for normalizing US-Mongolian relations are now better than at any time since Mongolia's Soviet-backed revolution in 1921.
``Mongolia is fully prepared to establish diplomatic relations with the United States,'' Mongolia's first deputy foreign minister, Damaryn Yondon, recently said in a rare interview with a US journalist. Mr. Yondon hinted that an announcement of mutual recognition was possible ``in the not-too-distant future,'' possibly by the end of the year.
Although Yondon would not directly confirm that negotiations are under way, both Western and Soviet diplomats here say that the two sides first made contact at the United Nations in August, when Vernon Walters, Washington's UN representative, met with Mongolian officials in New York.
Moreover, Mongolia is now reportedly willing to accept US marines as embassy guards, removing the chief obstacle in Mongolia's unsuccessful normalization talks with the US in 1973. Washington still links diplomatic recognition to Mongolia's agreeing to the opening of a US embassy in Ulan Bator. The Mongolians have been unwilling to accept this in the past.
But Mongolia's recent shift on such a contentious and nationalistic issue as ``foreign forces'' on its soil signals a new willingness to accept Washington's conditions. The marines ``are no longer a political issue,'' an authoritative source here said.
Mongolia's flexibility reflects deeper crosscurrents that Mr. Gorbachev's Asian initiatives have stirred up. In the past, Moscow was careful to protect its smaller allies -- Mongolia, Vietnam, and Afghanistan -- by refusing to discuss ``third countries'' with China.
But when Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Rogachev arrived in Peking Oct. 5 for the ninth round of normalization talks with China, he announced -- to Mongolia's chagrin -- that Moscow would now discuss ``all issues'' directly with China.
``China has now made Mongolia the test of Soviet sincerity,'' and is waiting to see how many and when Soviet troops would actually be withdrawn from Mongolia, a diplomat here commented. ``Moscow's not going to fail it [Peking] because of the Mongols.''
Mongolia has gone along with Gorbachev's China policy, however reluctantly. Since the beginning of the year, Mongolia has signed with China a civil-aviation agreement, a long-term trade protocol, and a consular accord. It has also scheduled a summertime weekly charter flight to Peking and sent wrestlers, writers, and a friendship delegation on exchanges to China.
And for the first time since China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a Chinese film was shown on Mongolian television to mark China's National Day, Oct. 1.
These developments will make it easier for Gorbachev to convince China of the sincerity of his recent overtures. But there are limits, analysts indicate, as to how far the Mongolians will voluntarily move in China's direction.
With a population of only 2 million in a territory as vast and open as the US Southwest, Mongolians feel threatened by what they fear to be the pressure of expansive and land-hungry Chinese on their southern border. This underlying sense of insecurity, which is firmly rooted in history, remains apparent at many levels.
While welcoming senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's stress on modernization and peaceful borders, Mongolian officials underline the ``historical lessons'' of living next door to China.
``Over the centuries, whenever China is strong, it has used that strength to dominate or conduct aggression against its neighbors,'' Yondon said.
``Today China is a militarily strong power, a nuclear-weapons power, and a rapidly developing industrial power with military links to the US and Japan,'' Mongolia's acting foreign minister continued. ``And by the Chinese Communist Party's 100th year anniversary in 2049, China intends to emerge as a world power.''
The deeper tensions are apparent even to travelers on the slow train from Ulan Bator to Peking. The one Chinese car, at least on the day that this journalist was traveling, was sealed off from the rest of the Mongolian train by a stern-faced attendant who was there to prevent passage to the restaurant car.
Between the Chinese car and a well-provisioned Mongolian restaurant car were seven cars full of Soviet soldiers and their families returning to duty at military bases in the Gobi Desert. The segregation on the train at least symbolized how the Mongolians would ideally arrange relations with their two powerful neighbors if they held all the keys to the compartments.
But they do not hold all the keys -- far from it. So to placate Moscow, the Mongolians are making gestures to Peking while simultaneously trying to strengthen their hand against China. By normalizing relations with the US, Mongolia hopes to bolster its independence and gain diplomatic latitude.
At the same time, the Mongolians are asserting all-but-impossible conditions for a total pullout of Soviet forces.
When Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Shuqing visited Ulan Bator in August -- the first visit by a senior Chinese official in 20 years -- he was told of two preconditions for a complete Soviet troop withdrawal: China must first pull its troops back from the Mongolian border ``deep into Chinese territory'' and publicly renounce any claims on Mongolia.
A Soviet diplomat here said Moscow welcomes US-Mongolian relations as ``normal and desirable.'' Indeed, US recognition would enhance Mongolia's credibility at a moment when Ulan Bator has assumed a special role in Gorbachev's peace offensive. But Moscow would not welcome any complications at this delicate stage in its relations with China, when the troop withdrawal from Mongolia has become a sincerity test. Moscow's real attitude, therefore, will become apparent only if this time US-Mongolian normalization talks succeed.