By Idrees Ali
ULANBATOR (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is set to meet senior Mongolian leaders on Thursday in a rare visit to the strategically important nation to deepen ties, as the Pentagon seeks to implement its strategy of focusing on countering China and Russia.
On a map, Mongolia, locked between Russia and China, best represents the Pentagon’s priorities over the coming decades.
Esper’s visit to Mongolia, on his first international trip since being confirmed as defence secretary, highlights the importance the country is seen as playing in the region.
This is the first visit to the country by a defence secretary since 2014, when Chuck Hagel spent about four hours there. Esper will be spending a night in the capital, Ulan Bator.
On Wednesday evening, Esper was welcomed to Ulan Bator according to custom, and tried dried milk curd upon stepping off the plane at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, named after the country’s warrior-emperor.
He is set to meet Mongolia’s president and defence minister on Thursday.
But the ceremonial highlight of the visit will be when Esper is given a horse as a present later in the day.
“Mongolia is, given its location, given its interest in working more with us, their ‘third neighbour’ policy, all those things, is the reason why I want to go there and engage,” Esper told reporters travelling with him around Asia earlier this week.
Mongolia is eager for investment from the United States and other countries it considers “third neighbours” 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 President Donald Trump.
“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,” said a senior U.S. defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The official said that while this trip was not about promoting any specific initiative, the United States is keen to look at expanding ties, potentially in areas like military training, which could take advantage of Mongolia’s cold weather.
Esper’s trip to Mongolia comes at a particularly tense time in relations between the United States and China, which are locked into an escalating trade war.
Last year, the U.S. military put countering China and Russia at the centre of a new national defence strategy, shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on the fight against Islamist militants.
Mongolia has been a consistent U.S. military partner, providing troops to U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it still has about 200 troops.
It also has a relationship with North Korea, something Washington could leverage as Trump seeks to revive stalled denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang. The country is accessible by rail from North Korea.
“Mongolia is not going to side entirely with anybody against anybody,” said Abraham Denmark, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia.
“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,” Denmark said.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)