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Hagel gets a horse from Mongolian hosts as he wraps up Asia trip

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was presented with a horse as a gift by Mongolian Defense Minister Dashdemberal Bat-Erdene.

Alex Wong/REUTERS

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was presented with a horse as a gift by Mongolian Defense Minister Dashdemberal Bat-Erdene.

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — The Pentagon’s effort to expand its assets in Asia got a quirky boost Thursday as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acquired a horse during a brief visit to this landlocked country wedged between China and Russia.

After feeding Hagel dried milk curd from a silver bowl as he stepped off the plane, Mongolian officials gave him the animal as they pledged to strengthen military cooperation with the United States.

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‘‘It’s a handsome horse,’’ Hagel said as he inspected the 9-year-old dirty blonde horse, which he named Shamrock after his Nebraska high school mascot. ‘‘Unfortunately, I will have to leave Shamrock here for the time being.’’

The horse gift ceremony outside the Mongolian Defense Ministry was the final stop of a 10-day Asian 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 home to fewer than 3 million people, has gained appeal as a strategic partner for Washington in recent years. It has among the world’s fastest-growing economies, has contributed troops to the US-led wars 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, Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel. ‘‘Our two militaries have benefited from working together and learning from each other.’’

Dashdemberel and Hagel signed a joint statement pledging to strengthen military cooperation and increase joint training exercises. The Mongolian minister, however, said his country is barred by law from contemplating the possibility of hosting American military bases here.

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‘‘Mongolia wants to be more than a passive observer in the international arena,’’ Dashdemberel said. ‘‘We want to be actively engaged in international operations.’’

Washington provides the country with $2 million annually in military aid and spends roughly $1 million on training programs for Mongolia’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 roughly 10,000 troops, is seeking to expand as the country builds a 3,000-member brigade that would specialize in peacekeeping operations. The Defense Ministry is also tasked with guarding the country’s mineral resources, the engine of its growing economy.

As the sparsely populated country’s economy has grown, trade with the United States has increased notably, growing from $204 million in 2003 to $707 million in 2012, according to figures provided by the US Embassy here.

Hagel’s horse is the second the Mongolian government has given to a Pentagon chief. Donald Rumsfeld got one in 2005 when he became the first US defense secretary to visit Mongolia. Hagel said he named the horse Shamrock to pay tribute to his time at St. Bonaventure High School in Columbus, Neb.

‘‘It was one of the most important times of my life,’’ he said.

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.

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