ULAN BATOR: Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel flew to Mongolia on Thursday to endorse stronger military ties with a government eager for US partnership as a counterweight to its powerful neighbors, Russia and China.
Hagel’s trip to Mongolia, only the second by a US defense secretary and the first in nine years, will feature the signing of a “joint vision” statement between the two sides that calls for expanding military cooperation through joint training and assistance, US officials said.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s military said also on Thursday it would hold its largest-ever joint air drill with the US as tensions mount over a series of threats from North Korea.
The Mongolia visit came after a three-day swing through China by Hagel that was marked by public clashes over Beijing’s territorial disputes with its neighbors and its relations with North Korea.
The mostly symbolic do–cument to be signed in Ulan Bator is likely to irritate China, which has accused the Americans of seeking to hold back its rise by cultivating military ties with smaller Asian neighbors.
“This statement is both a demonstration of the growth of the US-Mongolia relationship, having served side by side together with coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific where the United States is deepening cooperation with all of our allies and partners,” a senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anony–mity, said in a statement.
China has also questioned Washington’s strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific as a bid to thwart Beijing’s role in the region.
In Ulan Bator, Hagel was due to meet Mongolian soldiers who have served with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led force in Afghanistan as well as peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Chad.
Mongolia now has about 350 troops with coalition forces in Afghanistan, its 10th deployment of the war.
The United States spends about $2 million a year on military vehicles and communication equipment for Mongolia along with $1 million on training of the country’s 10,000-strong army.
Landlocked Mongolia, once a satellite of the Soviet Union, peacefully threw off 70 years of communist rule in 1990 and its small military has embraced peacekeeping missions in recent years.
Mining of Mongolia’s vast coal, copper and gold reserves has helped transform an economy once dependent on nomadic lifestyles not far removed from its empire-building hero Genghis Khan 800 years ago.
Mongolia is Hagel’s final stop on a 10-day Asia tour that included a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Hawaii and a two-day visit to Japan.
Throughout his trip, Hagel appealed for a peaceful reso–lution of territorial arguments that China has with Japan in the East China Sea, and with the Philippines and other countries in the South China Sea.
In a thinly veiled warning to Beijing, which has taken an assertive stance in the disputes, Hagel repeatedly said no country should use “coercion” or “inti–midation” to try to settle the territorial claims.
He vowed that the United States would stand by its military alliance treaties with Japan and the Philippines.
Korea-US air drills
South Korea’s military said it would hold with the US the twice-yearly Max Thunder exercise from today to April 25. It will be the largest involving 103 aircraft and 1,400 troops, the air force said.
Seoul’s F-15K jet fighters will take part along with US Air Force F-15 and F-16s and US Marines’ FA-18 and EA-18 aircraft, it said in a statement.
“The combined air forces will strengthen their battle readiness under the current situation when tension rises over the Korean peninsula,” it said.
The exercise will focus on “practical scenarios” involving precision attacks on enemies or supply drop missions for troops infiltrating enemy territory, it added.
Separately, the allies are also holding annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, which last from late February to April 18.
North Korea has slammed the drills as a rehearsal for invasion. In a pointed protest, Pyongyang has launched a series of rockets and missiles in recent weeks, capped by its first mid-range missile test since 2009 on March 26.
The two Koreas also traded fire across the tense Yellow Sea border on March 31, after the North dropped some 100 shells across the border during a live-fire drill, prompting the South to fire back.
The rare exchange of fire came a day after the North warned that it might carry out a “new” form of nuclear test—a possible reference to a uranium-based device or a miniaturized warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye this week called for tighter vigilance against the North, days after its leader Kim Jong-Un warned of a “very grave situation” on the peninsula.