- Associated Press - Thursday, April 10, 2014

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia (AP) - The United States will expand military training and exercises with Mongolia following the signing of an agreement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the close of his 10-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region.

Hagel’s stop Thursday in Ulan Bator put him in between China and Russia, two global powers that have been sparring with the U.S. over territorial disputes involving American allies. Hagel has repeatedly urged nations to respect their neighbors and resolve disagreements peacefully during his trip.

After spending three days in China, Hagel was expected to thank the Mongolians for their contributions to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He was to meet with Mongolian Defense Minister Dash Demberal Bat-Erdene.

The agreement signed by Hagel noted that the fledgling democratic nation “serves as a stabilizing influence in Asia and is seeking to modernize its military in a transparent fashion.”

Mongolian troops have been a visible and frequent force in Iraq and Afghanistan, often providing security at U.S. facilities.

All the commanders who led Mongolian troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan deployments went through U.S. training programs, the Pentagon said. There are about 10,000 active duty Mongolian troops, and to date 9,500 have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or another peacekeeping mission around the world.

The U.S. provides about $2 million in foreign military sales annually to Mongolia, and another $1 million in military education and training.

Landlocked with 2.8 million people spread over an area twice the size of Texas, Mongolia is dwarfed by China, but also relies on the Asian nation for much of its economy. It has worked to maintain its independence from Beijing and Moscow by increasing its ties to other world powers, including the U.S. and Japan.

Hagel’s visit was expected to be warmer than his visit to China, where he spent much of his time talking about the need for increased openness from Beijing about its military growth and intentions.

The U.S. has criticized Beijing’s recent declaration of an air defense zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including disputed remote islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China. Hagel and the Chinese leaders have delivered sharp exchanges on those issues, as well as Washington’s continued close ties with Taiwan, at meetings and public events.

Beijing leaders meanwhile have asserted their right to protect and regain their territories using diplomacy and military action if necessary. And they have questioned U.S. claims that it remains neutral on the sovereignty of the disputed islands. The U.S. has also committed to protect Japan, which is a treaty ally.

On Wednesday, Hagel met with China President Xi Jinping in a session U.S. administration officials described as more positive than some of the sharper meetings earlier in the week with the defense minister and others.

At the start of the meeting, Xi, speaking through a translator, said Hagel’s visit “will definitely push forward the development of our new model of military-to-military relationship.”

Senior U.S. officials said the ongoing tensions with North Korea, including Pyongyang’s threats to conduct additional missile launches and a nuclear test, were a key topic during the meeting.

Hagel stressed that China and the U.S. must work together, and both agreed that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was a priority, said the officials, who were not authorized to talk publicly about the private session so spoke on condition of anonymity.

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