ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, as part of his first international tour since accepting the Cabinet post last month.
Mongolia is not a traditional destination of U.S. defense secretaries. Chuck Hagel was the last defense secretary to visit in 2014.
The nation, sandwiched between China and Russia, is located in a “neighborhood that has a lot of mischief going on around its perimeter,” Rudy deLeon, a defense policy expert with the Center for American Progress and a former deputy secretary of defense, told VOA.
That is, in part, a major reason why Mongolia has had a “pretty consistently upward” trajectory of importance to the United States in recent years, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
“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 criticized 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.
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.
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 don’t involve Beijing.
That interest aligns with those of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has appeared eager to increase 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.
Defense experts say Mongolia’s relationship with Russia and China is typical of any nation bordered by such geopolitical heavyweights.
“They have to kind of [jump on the] bandwagon because they don't want to provoke their powerful neighbor. 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 Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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 said.
During his stop, Esper will hold talks with Mongolia’s defense minister and president.