After several years of vigorous democratization efforts and painful free-market reforms, Mongolia appears to be eagerly courting new shepherds to lead its 2.4 million people toward a more prosperous and secure future.

But that doesn’t mean the impoverished, pastoral nation and its people are ready to welcome anybody in that role. Whom does Mongolia see as the most desirable and reliable shepherd? And, conversely, whom does the country perceive as a potential wolf?

During the Cold War, Mongolia relied heavily on the Soviet Union and, to a much lesser extent, other Moscow satellites for both trade and economic aid. Soviet troops were long stationed in Mongolia, mostly on its border with China. They were completely withdrawn at the end of 1992 amid a thaw in the long icy relations between Moscow and Beijing, which had been locked in sharp confrontation over ideological differences since the late 1950s.

But the end of the Cold War and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union forced Mongolia to search for new patrons. It comes as no surprise that it appears to have set its eyes on industrialized nations, in particular the United States and Japan, the world’s two largest economies.

“Mongolia’s policy of the last three or four years has been to rely on the U.S. for national security and on Japan for economic development,” said Hiroshi Futaki, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. While the Mongolian people have ill — or complex at best — feelings toward Russia and China for historical reasons, Futaki pointed out that they do not view their two giant neighbors in the same light. “There are even feelings of intimacy toward Russia among some Mongolian people,” he said.

“Although it is true that there was once some anti-Soviet sentiment among the Mongolian people, the Soviet Union never adopted a policy of making Mongolia a part of it,” Futaki said. “But the Mongolian people have always been haunted by fears that China might annex their country, with some still believing that it will be difficult to maintain their country’s independence. “China, for its part, remains excessively alarmed by the independence movements in Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China), although Mongolia has neither the will nor the power to reunify,” Futaki said.

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