US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, center-left, and Mongolian Defense Minister Dashdemberal Bat-Erdene, center-right, participate April 10 in a signing ceremony of a joint vision statement at the Mongolian Ministry of Defense in Ulan Bator. (Alex Wong / AFP)
ULAN BATOR — Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel Thursday endorsed stronger military ties with Mongolia as it seeks a US partnership as a counterweight to its powerful neighbors Russia and China.
Hagel and his Mongolian counterpart Dashdemberel Bat-Erdene signed a “joint vision” statement in Ulan Bator calling for expanding military cooperation through joint training and assistance.
The document is mostly symbolic but is likely to irritate Beijing, which has accused Washington of trying to hold back its rise by cultivating military ties with smaller Asian neighbors.
“A strong US-Mongolia defense relationship is important as part of the American rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region,” Hagel told a joint press conference, referring to a strategic “pivot” that China has eyed with concern.
But Bat-Erdene ruled out the possibility of hosting US bases, which currently exist in Japan and South Korea.
“We have a law not to establish foreign military bases or to station troops in our country,” he said.
Hagel’s visit — his final stop on a 10-day Asia tour — followed a three-day swing through China that was marked by public clashes over Beijing’s territorial disputes with its neighbors and its relations with North Korea.
Earlier he attended a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Hawaii and spent two days in Japan.
Throughout his trip, Hagel appealed for a peaceful settlement of territorial disputes that Beijing has with Tokyo in the East China Sea and with the Philippines and other countries in the South China Sea.
In a thinly veiled warning to Beijing, which has taken an assertive stance in the disputes, Hagel repeatedly said no country should use “coercion” or “intimidation” to try to settle territorial claims.
He vowed that the United States would stand by its military alliance treaties with Japan and the Philippines.
A horse named Shamrock
Landlocked Mongolia, once a satellite of the Soviet Union, peacefully threw off 70 years of communist rule in 1990 and its small military has embraced peacekeeping missions in recent years.
Mongolian troops have been part of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Ulan Bator now has about 350 troops in its 10th deployment of the war.
The United States spends about $2 million a year on military vehicles and communication equipment for Mongolia along with $1 million on training of the country’s 10,000-strong army.
Mining of Mongolia’s vast coal, copper and gold reserves has helped transform an economy once dependent on nomadic lifestyles not far removed from its empire-building hero Genghis Khan 800 years ago.
However its horses — physically small but renowned for their stamina — remain a central part of Mongolian culture, and Hagel was presented with one so frisky it had to be restrained by a herdsman, provoking concern among both the Mongolian and US security teams.
It will remain in Mongolia but the Pentagon chief named it Shamrock, after his high school sports team in Nebraska.
His predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, the last defense secretary to visit Ulan Bator nine years ago, was also presented with a horse and called it Montana, while US Pacific Command chief Adm. Sam Locklear, who visited last year, called his Chesapeake.
“Now you be good while I’m gone,” Hagel told the animal.