In Rare Mongolia Stop, U.S. Defense Secretary Gets an Unusual Gift

Esper’s visit is designed to send a pointed signal to Mongolia’s neighbors: Russia and China.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is presented a horse by Mongolia's defense minister, Nyamaagiin Enkhbold, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on Aug. 8.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is presented a horse by Mongolia's defense minister, Nyamaagiin Enkhbold, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on Aug. 8. Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia—Nearly a century ago, a young U.S. Army officer named George Marshall traveled halfway around the world to Mongolia to secure the very best horses for his infantry regiment.

During a rare stop here on Thursday, another former Army officer-turned-U.S. defense secretary got his own Mongolian steed. Newly confirmed Pentagon chief Mark Esper named the tiny caramel horse, a gift from his Mongolian counterpart, “Marshall,” in honor of the Army general who shares his hometown.

Esper’s visit to Mongolia, the fourth stop on his first international trip, is part of President Donald Trump’s effort to bolster ties with the Asian nation as Washington remains locked in a trade war with its Chinese neighbor and is facing a growing strategic challenge from Beijing and Moscow. It comes just a week after Trump received the Mongolian president at the White House, marking the first visit by a Mongolian leader to Washington since 2011. National Security Advisor John Bolton also visited Mongolia this summer.

Mongolia sits in a strategic location, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south—the two nations the Pentagon has identified as posing the greatest long-term threats to the United States.

“Given its location, given its interest in working more with us, their ‘third neighbor’ policy—all those things are the reasons why I want to go there,” Esper told reporters during the trip, referring to Mongolia’s policy of building relations with countries other than its neighbors.

China in particular is a major focus for the new defense secretary. U.S. defense officials have slammed Beijing’s military buildup and island building in the South China Sea, as well as its maritime intimidation of smaller neighbors. Officials are also concerned about China’s use of debt diplomacy to gain control of key ports and infrastructure. In a report this year, the Pentagon expressed concern about a possible Chinese assault on Taiwan.

The Trump administration is eager to bolster economic relations with Mongolia in the hope of increasing its leverage in trade negotiations with Beijing. More than 90 percent of Mongolia’s trade goes through China, a senior administration official said ahead of President Khaltmaagiin Battulga’s visit. Trade talks between Washington and Beijing are stalled; just a week ago, Trump announced additional tariffs on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese imports. 

Despite its authoritarian neighbors, Mongolia has managed to establish a flourishing democracy after renouncing communism in 1990, the official said. It is also a strong supporter of the U.N.- and U.S.-led economic pressure campaign against North Korea, the official added.

During his visit, Esper emphasized Mongolia’s military relationship with the United States, noting that it has been a reliable contributor to operations in Afghanistan and provides unique cold-weather training opportunities for U.S. troops.

“We see them as punching way above their weight,” a senior defense official told reporters ahead of the trip, stressing that Mongolia is a “major contributor to peacekeeping.” Esper planned to discuss expanding joint training during the visit, the defense official said.

“Mongolia lives in a tough neighborhood surrounded by Russia and China, so we want to make sure we are that good third neighbor,” the official said. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman