ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia—“Before we begin, I’d like to decline two questions,” the National Security Adviser to Mongolia’s president warns me. “One is railroads, the other is Chinese workers.” With those caveats, Batchimeg Migidorj touches on the two third-rail issues that define her nation’s precarious place in the world.

Sandwiched between Russia and China—both superpowers that, ironically, it once conquered—this tiny nation of almost 2.8 million people sprawls across a territory more than twice the size of France. And it is trying desperately to find some autonomy in a world that often seems intent only in snagging a slice of its natural resource windfall, which it has only begun to unearth. Mongolia, like a handful of other smaller nations in similar geo-political circumstances, is doing its best to survive, even prosper, against enormous odds. But Mongolia has something else going for it—a patrimony...

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