By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia, April 11, 2014 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Dashdemberel Bat-Erdene signed a joint vision statement here yesterday designed to deepen a decade-long defense relationship built on shared interests and forged in combat as troops of both nations fought together in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mongolia was the final stop of a 10-day Asia-Pacific trip -- Hagel’s fourth in less than 12 months -- that began in Hawaii with a meeting of defense ministers of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and continued in Japan, China and Mongolia.
When Hagel arrived at Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan International Airport, among the U.S. Embassy and Mongolian Ministry of Defense officials there to greet him was a woman dressed in a traditional Mongolian garment -- one similar to Mongolian bridal designs used as the basis for costumes worn by Queen Padme Amidala in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” according to embassy officials.
On the ground, Hagel was presented with traditional welcoming gifts: a blue silk scarf and a silver bowl containing a Mongolian dairy product called aaruul, a dried fermented milk curd.
At the Ministry of Defense, Hagel was greeted by Bat-Erdene and reviewed the colorfully uniformed Mongolian Armed Forces Honor Guard before the two leaders sat down for a meeting and later signed the Joint Vision Statement for the U.S.-Mongolia Security Relationship.
The statement, Hagel said, “expresses our shared desire to continue deepening that defense relationship.”
At a joint press conference after the meeting, Hagel characterized Mongolia, which adopted democracy in 1990, as “a valued partner of the United States” and “a growing state in regional and global security.”
During the meeting with Bat-Erdene, Hagel told the press, “I commended the minister for significant contributions the Mongolian Armed Forces have made to security around the world through participation in many activities. These include United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and fighting alongside the United States in Afghan and Iraq.”
Over the past decade the two militaries have benefited from working together and learning from each other, the secretary added.
According to a U.S. official, the Defense Department provides about $1 million annually in International Military Education and Training, or IMET, funding for MAF troops. IMET graduates have led all 10 rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Foreign Military Financing funds have been used to equip the Mongolian peacekeeping brigade with vehicles, communications equipment and personal equipment. That funding is about $2 million annually, the official said.
At the press conference Hagel said, “As Mongolia invests in defense modernization, the United States will continue to work with our Mongolian partners to include joint training and exercises. This would include increasing opportunities for Mongolia to observe and participate in multilateral exercises.”
The secretary said the defense leaders had also discussed opportunities for the forces to work even more closely together.
A current exercise in which the United States and Mongolia participate is Khaan Quest, one of the world’s largest training exercises focused on peacekeeping operations. A joint venture, Hagel said, is the Five Hills Training Center near Ulaanbaatar, established in 1983. The joint-training military site gives units large areas for field training and exercises and classroom settings for strategic planning lessons.
“We’ll continue to do more together regarding humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the secretary said, “and more joint training exercises that we discussed.”
Hagel added, “We in the United States believe that military-to-military cooperation between Mongolia and the United States is very solid, it is very strong, and we look forward to continuing to deepen and strengthen our military cooperation and relationship.”
A strong U.S.-Mongolia defense relationship is important to America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, the secretary noted, adding that he’s made that point during his current visit to the region and in discussions with Minister Bat-Erdene.
“I did share with the minister some of my reflections on this 10-day trip. I briefed him on all the stops I’ve made,” Hagel said. “I told him about the candid exchanges I’ve had at every stop, including my most recent stop in China, and I specifically mentioned the conversations I had in China regarding the regional security issue and China’s and America’s shared interest in putting our military-to-military relationship on stronger footing, which we think is good for the Asia-Pacific region.”
Hagel said he’d met with 13 Asia-Pacific defense ministers on the trip “and for all those discussions in this 10-day trip it’s clear to me that to preserve the region’s growth and dynamism and opportunities depends on 14 strong security relationships throughout the region, increasing cooperation in areas of common interest, and resolving disputes peacefully.”
Many challenges face all nations in the region today, he added, but also many opportunities.
“We must continue to work together to seize these opportunities as we all build a better future for all of our people,” the secretary said.
After the press conference, Hagel met with 26 Mongolian soldiers who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and for peacekeeping missions in Africa, including Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Chad. The secretary thanked them for their service and sacrifices.
Mongolia has about 350 troops in Afghanistan today and they are on their 10th rotation conducting security operations. They also had 10 rotations of troops in Iraq, a defense official said.
Hagel’s final stop in Ulaanbaatar was the Government House where he met with Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj.
Hagel’s visit was the first time in 10 years Mongolia’s defense minister and president have met with a U.S. defense secretary, a senior defense official said, and the visit was critical to Mongolia's "Third Neighbor Policy" of outreach to governments beyond China and Russia.
But before Hagel left to meet with the president he received one more traditional gift from the minister of defense -- a 9.5-year old Mongolian horse, small but sturdy with a reddish coat, led by a handler to the area where the secretary was visiting MAF troops.
Hagel beamed and announced that he was naming the horse Shamrock.
“The reason I’m naming him Shamrock,” Hagel told the smiling crowd, “is that shamrock was the mascot of a place I graduated from, St. Bonaventure School in Columbus, Neb.”
Before he left for his meeting with the president, Hagel admired the horse, thanked the minister, and posed with the horse, throwing his arm across Shamrock’s withers as he was told that he would receive letters about Shamrock’s activities and well-being since the secretary was unable to take the horse to the United States.
Later, in the military aircraft on the way home, the secretary showed the reporters traveling with him a large framed photograph of Hagel and Shamrock standing cozily together, Shamrock wearing a hackamore of leather and polished stones and metal tied with a blue silk scarf.
The secretary said he would send the framed photograph to St. Bonaventure for the school’s permanent collection of graduate memorabilia.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinAFPS)