Mongolian Defense Minister Nyamaa Enkhbold, right, presents a horse as a gift to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Defense Ministry in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Aug. 8, 2019.  (C. Babb/VOA)
Mongolian Defense Minister Nyamaa Enkhbold, right, presents a horse as a gift to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Defense Ministry in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Aug. 8, 2019. (C. Babb/VOA)

ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA - U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper faced a difficult decision during his stop in Mongolia Thursday — what name to give a horse.

He landed on a name easily recognizable to Americans, with a unique tie to Mongolian equestrian history. A name associated with war and peace — the name of a famous U.S. Army general in the 1940s who went on to become a secretary of defense and secretary of state. And a man who, in the 1920s as a young military officer, traveled to Mongolia to procure the finest horses for his infantry regiment while they were based in China.

Esper named his chestnut steed -- a traditional gift of Mongolians to visiting dignitaries -- Marshall, after General George Marshall. The man lauded as an “organizer of victory” in World War II and such an advocate for post-war European recovery that the U.S. plan dedicated to it bore his name.

Mongolian Defense Minister Nyamaa Enkhbold, left, presents a horse as a gift to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Defense Ministry in Ulaanbaatar, Aug. 8, 2019.

If only difficult decisions about Mongolia’s neighbors Russia and China could be quite as poetic.

The nation is clearly in a “neighborhood that has a lot of mischief going on around its perimeter,” said Rudy deLeon, a defense policy expert with the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense.

That is, in part, a major reason why Mongolia, an untraditional stop for a defense secretary, has had a “pretty consistently upward” trajectory of importance to the United States in recent years, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

Strategic location

“Given its location, given its interest in working more with us… all those things are a reason why I want to go there and engage,” Defense Secretary Esper told reporters traveling with him this week.

Since January 2018, the Pentagon has been implementing a National Defense Strategy (NDS) which prioritizes U.S. protection from near-peer competitors China and Russia.

One of the key action items of the NDS is to cultivate more robust partnerships to expand the United States’ network of allies. Esper said Mongolia is among the “key countries in the Indo-Pacific,” where he hopes to build military relationships at a “more senior level.”

He grouped Mongolia with emerging U.S. partners Vietnam and Indonesia, whom he called “like-minded countries who believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific, who share the values we do and who believe in respecting one another’s sovereignty,” an apparent criticism of regional giant China.

While touring the Asia-Pacific this week, Esper has repeatedly called out China for “destabilizing” the Indo-Pacific through military aggression in the South China Sea, state-sponsored theft of intellectual property and “predatory economics.”

“The United States will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others,” Esper said during a stop this week in Sydney.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper briefs the media following annual bilateral talks with Australian counterparts in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 4, 2019.

Mongolia refers to the United States as its “third neighbor,” and the U.S. is one of just a handful of countries to sign a strategic partnership deal with Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia is considered by U.S. defense officials to be a net exporter of security, and since Washington and Ulaanbaatar signed their first military-to-military agreement in the 1990s, Mongolians have been major contributors to international peacekeeping missions and training.

They have consistently participated in the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, with more than 200 Mongolian troops currently deployed to the war-torn nation. And they have provided U.S. service members with the opportunity for cold-weather training, a useful skill in the event of a future confrontation with Russia or China.

“We see them as punching way above their weight,” a senior U.S. defense official said.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Chinese President Xi Jinping and President of Mongolia Khaltmaagiin Battulga pose for media during their meeting in Qingdao, China, June 9, 2018.

Mongolia is hoping to increase both military and economic ties with the United States to potentially lessen its dependency on China. The vast majority of Mongolia’s trade currently passes through China, and officials say Ulaanbaatar would like to find trade routes that do not involve Beijing.

That interest aligns with those of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has appeared eager to increases allies in China’s backyard as the U.S. trade dispute with China intensifies.

Trump recently met with Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga at the White House for talks focused on trade and security.

FILE - President Donald Trump greets Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga on the South Lawn of the White House, July 31, 2019, in Washington.

Defense experts say Mongolia’s relationships with Russia and China are typical of any nation bordered by such geopolitical heavyweights.

Because they do not want to provoke their powerful neighbors, Mongolian government leaders find themselves jumping on a  “bandwagon” with Russia and China at times, says Bradley Bowman, Senior Director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“On the other hand, they love to find powerful countries from far away to give them a little leverage in dealing with their powerful neighbor. I think, for them, that's what the United States is,” said Bowman.
 
Long-standing tensions remain between Mongolia, Russia and China, but experts say the cooperation between the nations also raises U.S. concerns about technology and intelligence sharing.

“So it’s a tricky situation,” Bowman added.