| ULAN BATOR, April 10
ULAN BATOR, April 10 U.S. Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel praised Mongolian troops and got a horse as a gift
during a rare visit on Thursday to the landlocked nation
strategically located between China and Russia that sits on vast
quantities of untapped mineral wealth.
Hagel was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Mongolia
since Donald Rumsfeld stopped there in 2005. He noted the
growing role the country has taken in international peacekeeping
operations, including in Afghanistan, where it has 350 troops.
"As one of the world's fastest growing economies, Mongolia
has a growing stake in regional and global security," he said.
Hagel was welcomed to the capital Ulan Bator according to
custom, trying dried milk curd upon stepping off the plane at
Chinggis Khaan International Airport, named after the country's
Guards in ceremonial costumes were standing at attention
when his motorcade rolled into the defense ministry.
But the ceremonial highlight of the four-hour visit came
when Hagel was a given a brown horse from an army cavalry unit
as a present. The horse would stay behind to be cared for in
Mongolia. Hagel was promised photo-updates every year.
"You be good while I'm gone," Hagel said at the end of the
ceremony. He named the horse Shamrock, after his High School
mascot in Nebraska.
Hagel also met Mongolian forces who served in peacekeeping
roles, including a staff sergeant who was shot in his helmet in
Iraq but survived. That helmet was now in the Mongolian Military
museum. "I appreciate your sacrifice," Hagel told them.
Mongolia had about 10 rotations of troops in Iraq.
The United States has been keen to support newly-democratic
Mongolia, which held its first free multi-party elections in
1990 after seven decades of communist rule.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden came to Mongolia in 2011, and
in 2005 George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to visit.
Hagel's trip followed a three-day visit to China that
exposed tensions over its territorial disputes with regional
U.S. allies. U.S. officials said the visit, however, advanced
Sino-U.S. military ties and ended with a positive meeting with
President Xi Jinping.
Ulan Bator has been keen to deepen relationships with what
it calls "third neighbours" like the United States, though China
still dominates Mongolia's economy.
Hagel and his Mongolian counterpart Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel
signed a joint statement that called Mongolia "a stabilising
influence in Asia" and noted it was seeking to modernise its
military in a transparent fashion.
Hagel said he spoke in Mongolia about the candid exchanges
he had during his 10-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region,
"including my most recent three days in China."
"And I specifically mentioned the conversations I had in
China regarding regional security issues and China and America's
shared interest in putting our military-military relationship on
a stronger footing, which we think is good for the Asia-Pacific
region," he said.
Tensions between China and the United States were on full
display on Tuesday as Hagel faced questions about America's
position in territorial disputes.
Still, Beijing made a rare opening to address that criticism
by allowing Hagel to tour China's sole aircraft carrier. He was
the first foreign defence official to do so, Beijing said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by