ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — The Pentagon’s effort to add to its assets in Asia got a symbolic boost Thursday as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acquired a horse during a brief visit to this landlocked country wedged between China and Russia.
Mongolian officials fed Hagel dried milk curd from a silver bowl after he stepped off the plane and then gave him the horse in a ceremony outside the Defense Ministry, where they pledged to strengthen military cooperation with the United States.
“It’s a handsome horse,” Hagel said as he inspected the 9-year-old, dirty-blond animal, which he named Shamrock after his Nebraska high school mascot. “Unfortunately, I will have to leave Shamrock here for the time being.”
Mongolia, home of legendary horsemen, was the final stop of a 10-day Asia trip during which Pentagon officials sought to reassure allies and calibrate Washington’s uneasy relationship with China, the region’s dominant military power.
Mongolia, a former Soviet client state with fewer than 3 million people, has gained appeal as a strategic partner for Washington in recent years. It has one of the world’s most rapidly expanding economies, has contributed troops to the U.S.-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shares borders with Russia and China.
“As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Mongolia has a growing stake in regional security,” Hagel said during a news conference with the country’s defense minister, Dashdemberel Bat-Erdene. “Our two militaries have benefited from working together and learning from each other.”
Mongolia’s trade with the United States also has increased notably in recent years, growing from $204 million in 2003 to $707 million in 2012, according to figures provided by the U.S. Embassy here.
Bat-Erdene and Hagel signed a statement pledging to strengthen military cooperation and increase joint training exercises. The Mongolian minister, however, said his country is barred by law from hosting U.S. military bases.
“Mongolia wants to be more than a passive observer in the international arena,” Bat-Erdene said. “We want to be actively engaged in international operations.”
Washington provides Mongolia with $2 million a year in military aid and spends about $1 million on training programs for the country’s armed forces. With 350 troops in Afghanistan, Mongolia is among the remaining partners of a coalition that several nations have abandoned.
The Mongolian military, which has about 10,000 troops, is seeking to expand as the country builds a 3,000-member brigade intended to specialize in peacekeeping operations. The Defense Ministry is also tasked with guarding the country’s mineral resources, the engine of its growing economy.
Hagel is the second U.S. defense secretary to be given a horse by Mongolia. Donald H. Rumsfeld got one in 2005 when he became the first Pentagon chief to visit the country. Hagel said he named the horse Shamrock because his years at St. Bonaventure High School in Columbus, Neb., were among “the most important times of my life.”
Before departing, Hagel put a blue cloth around the horse’s neck and thanked its caretaker. “You take care while I’m gone,” he said with a smile.
Pentagon officials said their Mongolian hosts assured them that no one would be allowed to ride the horse until Hagel returns.