By Idrees Ali
ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met senior Mongolian leaders on Thursday in a rare visit to the strategically important nation 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.
"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 with his Mongolian counterpart.
Esper was welcomed to the capital Ulaanbaatar on Wednesday according to custom, trying dried milk curd upon stepping off the plane at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, named after the country’s warrior-emperor.
The ceremonial highlight of the visit was when Esper was given a seven-year old caramel colored horse as a present. Esper named the horse Marshall after former U.S. Defense Secretary General George Marshall.
"He's happy, he likes his name," Esper, standing next to the horse, said.
The horse will stay behind to be cared for in Mongolia, though Esper was given a framed photo of the it. Esper, in return, gave the caretaker a blanket for the horse which is used by the U.S. Army Old Guard.
Esper's visit to Mongolia, on his first international trip since being confirmed as defense secretary, highlights the importance the country is seen as playing in the region.
This is the first visit to the country by a defense secretary since 2014, when Chuck Hagel spent about four hours there. Esper spent a night in Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia is eager for investment from the United States and other countries 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 President Donald Trump.
Battulga, a businessman often described as "Mongolia's Trump", was elected in 2017 on a populist and sometimes anti-Chinese platform, with the country increasingly wary of Beijing's growing regional dominance.
"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. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The official said that while this trip was not about promoting any specific initiative, the United States was keen to look at expanding ties, potentially in areas such as 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 center of a new national defense 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 that Washington could leverage as Trump seeks to revive stalled denuclearization 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 defense 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)