Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper embarked on his first international trip this week since being confirmed as Pentagon chief in July. His itinerary included a stop in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where he met with high-level officials in a bid to deepen U.S. ties with the country.

At first glance, the visit might seem like an unusual destination for a Pentagon chief’s first official trip — especially at a time of escalating tensions elsewhere in the world.

But his stopover is just the latest signal that the Trump administration is eager to maintain a strong partnership with the East Asian country of 3 million people that has served as a longtime U.S. defense partner.

When President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, national security adviser John Bolton opted to go ahead with a preplanned trip to Ulaanbaatar rather than accompany him. Weeks later, Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga landed in Washington for an official visit to the White House.

But it’s Mongolia’s strategic location — nestled between China and Russia — that makes it a natural partner for Washington. In the State Department’s 2019 budget, it described U.S. assistance priorities in Mongolia as ensuring “the United States remains a preferred partner over geographical neighbors Russia and China,” the AP reported.

And Mongolia has long “called the U.S. their third neighbor,” said Mike Green, a former George W. Bush administration official and senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The East Asian country looks “to the U.S. and U.S. allies like Japan and Korea to help them maintain economic growth and independence."

The two countries already cooperate militarily: U.S. troops participate in cold weather training in Mongolia, and Mongolian troops are on the ground in Afghanistan.

As China expands its massive development project, the Belt and Road Initiative, the United States and Mongolia see each other as necessary partners to counter Chinese influence there and across the region. Because of its location, about 90 percent of Mongolia’s trade passes through China. The White House said in July that Trump’s meeting with Battulga, a populist businessman and former world martial arts champion, was intended to find ways to expand how and where Mongolia trades.

“The Chinese are trying to do in Mongolia what they’re trying to do everywhere else in Asia, which is use a combination of economic incentives, intimidation and interference to pull Mongolia into its strategic orbit,” Green said. “It is a front-line state in the strategic competition with China and one that really likes the U.S.”

Battulga’s administration has even offered to host a meeting between Trump and Kim, and the White House said in June that the two countries “have agreed that their relationship has reached the level of a ‘strategic partnership.’ ”

Soon after Esper landed in Ulaanbaatar this week, officials there presented him with a gift to thank him for his visit: a 7-year-old horse with a thick, caramel-colored mane. Esper named the horse Marshall, after Gen. George Marshall, who served as defense secretary under President Harry S. Truman.

“He’s happy,” Esper said as he patted his new horse. “He likes his name.”

Esper’s horse is the second equine Mongolia has recently given to an affiliate of Trump, first presenting one to Trump’s 13-year-old son, Barron, last month. He named his Victory. Following tradition, both horses will be kept in Mongolia.

Horses have long been symbols of diplomacy in Mongolia.

In 2005, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was given a horse that he named Montana for his wife’s home state. In 2014, Chuck Hagel, another defense secretary, named his Shamrock after his high school mascot. President George W. Bush, the only sitting U.S. president to visit Mongolia, requested to not be given a horse, but he did taste mare milk on his visit.

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