By Jeff Mason
ULAN BATOR (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lauded land-locked Mongolia's efforts at democratization on Monday, offering support to a country that is strategically located between China and Russia and sits on vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth.
Biden, arriving from China for a day-long trip before going on to Tokyo, praised Mongolia for its embrace of democracy following decades of domination by the Soviet Union.
"We've grown much closer since the Mongolian people began to embrace ... democracy 22 years ago," he said after meeting Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold in capital Ulan Bator.
"The United States remains strongly committed to helping the Mongolian people build a better future," he added.
"I hope that you and the people of Mongolia will take my visit here today and President Obama's meeting with your president earlier this summer as signs of how impressed we are with the progress you've already made."
Mongolia, perhaps best known for the warrior-emperor Genghis Khan, was ruled as a one-party satellite of the Soviet Union for much of the last century.
Mongolia came under the rule of China's Qing dynasty in 1691. It broke away in 1921, winning independence under strict Soviet control, but China did not officially relinquish sovereignty claims until 1946.
After seven decades of communist rule, Mongolia held its first free multi-party elections in 1990.
But its transition to democracy has had rocky patches.
In 2008, a disputed election led to rioting on the streets of Ulan Bator, in which at least five people died.
In 2005, George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to visit the country and thanked Mongolia for supporting the Iraq war and hailed its progress to democracy. Mongolia sent some 120 soldiers to support U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2003, and it has also sent peacekeepers to other parts of the world.
"Americans admire and appreciate Mongolia's contribution to international peace and security," Biden said.
Ulan Bator has been keen to cultivate new relationships with what it calls "third neighbors" like the United States, though China dominates Mongolia's economy, buying 90 percent of the country's exports in the first half of 2011.
Mongolia sits on vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth, and foreign investment in gigantic mining properties is expected to transform its tiny economy in the next decade.
Already a key investment target for resource giants, Mongolia could become one of the world's fastest growing economies.
But after years on the fringes of the Soviet bloc, the land-locked country is developing its economy almost from scratch, and foreign investors need to know if its democratic government can maximize growth while handling the pressures exerted by its two giant neighbors, Russia and China.
Mongolia's plan to hand the majority of the billion-dollar Tavan Tolgoi or "Five Hills" coal mine's western block to Chinese and Russian interests demonstrated how dependent the country is on its two giant neighbors.
Mongolia has a population density of 1.7 people per sq km, one of the lowest in the world. Nearly half the population of 2.7 million are nomadic herders, who live in round, felt tents called gers and tend cattle, sheep, goats and yak.
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan, and David Stanway in BEIJING; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)