ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — The head of the U.S. Defense Department is visiting Mongolia to strengthen the military bonds between the U.S. and the landlocked democracy sandwiched between Russia and China.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s 24-hour stop in Mongolia on Thursday comes as Esper spends a week traveling across the Asia Pacific. For the U.S., countering China’s aggressive and destabilizing activities in the region is a top administration priority.

Esper says he has no specific goals for the visit involving how the Pentagon can expand its military cooperation with Mongolia. Instead, he says he wants to build stronger relationships at senior defense levels.

His hosts presented a traditional gift — a sturdy Mongolian horse, a 7-year-old buckskin. Esper named it Marshall, after George Marshall, a U.S. defense secretary and secretary of state.

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