Fri, Aug 09, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Rare Mongolia visit for Pentagon chief

STRATEGIC PARTNER:The new US defense secretary was not looking to push a specific initiative, but expressed desire to expand ties, especially in areas such as military training

Reuters, ULAN BATOR

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper yesterday met senior Mongolian leaders in a rare visit to the strategically important nation as the Pentagon seeks to implement its strategy of focusing on countering China and Russia.

“It is my deep privilege to be here, to be with you and to have the opportunity to look at different ways we can further strengthen the ties between our two countries,” Esper said before the start of his meeting.

Esper on Wednesday was welcomed to Ulan Bator, where he tried dried milk curd upon stepping off the plane at Chinggis Khaan International Airport.

The ceremonial highlight of the visit was when Esper was given a seven-year-old horse as a present. Esper named the horse Marshall after former US secretary of defense George Marshall.

Esper in return gave the caretaker a blanket for the horse that is used by the US Army Old Guard.

Esper’s visit to Mongolia, on his first international trip since being confirmed, highlights the importance the nation is seen as playing in the region.

This is the first visit to the nation by a US defense secretary since 2014, when Chuck Hagel spent about four hours there.

Mongolia is eager for investment from the US and other nations it considers “third neighbors” to help it reduce its economic dependence on China, through which most of its exports of cashmere and other goods move.

Late last month, Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa visited Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump.

Battulga was elected in 2017 on a populist and sometimes anti-Chinese platform.

“They have been a good ally that punches above its weight, and I think Secretary Esper wants to acknowledge [that] and see if there are ways to grow the partnership further,” a senior US defense official said on condition of anonymity.

While this trip was not about promoting any specific initiative, the US is keen to expand ties, potentially in areas such as military training, which could take advantage of Mongolia’s cold weather, the official said.

Last year, the US military put countering China and Russia at the center of its national defense strategy, shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on fighting Islamic militants.

Mongolia has been a consistent US military partner, providing troops to US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it still has about 200 troops.

It also has a relationship with North Korea that Washington could leverage as Trump seeks to revive stalled denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.

“Mongolia is not going to side entirely with anybody against anybody,” former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark said. “But they are looking to bolster their relationships with the United States, because possibly they want American economic engagement and political engagement, but also because it gives them a bit more breathing space in their relations with Beijing and Moscow.”

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