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 uptake 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 said, adding that visits by him and his boss, President Barack Obama, this year showed how impressed Washington was with Mongolia's progress.
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.
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.
Jargalsaikhan Dambadarjaa, a Mongolian economist and political commentator, said his country felt more political kinship with the United States than either of its neighbors, China or Russia.
"The relationship with the United States is very important for this country because we are in the middle of these two giants," he said.
A small group of demonstrators, however, took to the streets earlier to protest what they said were U.S. plans to store nuclear waste in the country, something the Mongolian government has denied.
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.
Batbold thanked Biden for U.S. support, saying he hoped for closer economic ties between the world's largest economy and sparsely inhabited Mongolia.
"We have discussed the possibilities to develop and enrich trade and economic relations with the United States and attract more United States investments to Mongolia," he said.
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.
As a symbol of the two countries growing friendship, Biden was presented with a horse by his Mongolian hosts -- which will not be taken back to Washington -- and treated to a taste of Mongolia's unique multi-toned "throat singing."
"As soon as I said that, he started to rear up," Biden said of the name he bestowed upon the horse, Celtic. "He didn't like the Irish epitaph."
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 Khaliun Bayartsogt and Maxim Duncan, and David Stanway in BEIJING; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)