By Phil Stewart
ULAN BATOR (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Mongolian troops and got a horse as a gift during a rare visit on Thursday to the landlocked nation strategically located between China and Russia that sits on vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth.
Hagel was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Mongolia since Donald Rumsfeld stopped there in 2005. He noted the growing role the country has taken in international peacekeeping operations, including in Afghanistan, where it has 350 troops.
"As one of the world's fastest growing economies, Mongolia has a growing stake in regional and global security," he said.
Hagel was welcomed to the capital Ulan Bator according to custom, trying dried milk curd upon stepping off the plane at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, named after the country's warrior-emperor.
Guards in ceremonial costumes were standing at attention when his motorcade rolled into the defense ministry.
But the ceremonial highlight of the four-hour visit came when Hagel was a given a brown horse from an army cavalry unit as a present. The horse would stay behind to be cared for in Mongolia. Hagel was promised photo-updates every year.
"You be good while I'm gone," Hagel said at the end of the ceremony. He named the horse Shamrock, after his High School mascot in Nebraska.
Hagel also met Mongolian forces who served in peacekeeping roles, including a staff sergeant who was shot in his helmet in Iraq but survived. That helmet was now in the Mongolian Military museum. "I appreciate your sacrifice," Hagel told them.
Mongolia had about 10 rotations of troops in Iraq.
The United States has been keen to support newly-democratic Mongolia, which held its first free multi-party elections in 1990 after seven decades of communist rule.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden came to Mongolia in 2011, and in 2005 George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to visit.
Hagel's trip followed a three-day visit to China that exposed tensions over its territorial disputes with regional U.S. allies. U.S. officials said the visit, however, advanced Sino-U.S. military ties and ended with a positive meeting with President Xi Jinping.
Ulan Bator has been keen to deepen relationships with what it calls "third neighbors" like the United States, though China still dominates Mongolia's economy.
Hagel and his Mongolian counterpart Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel signed a joint statement that called Mongolia "a stabilizing influence in Asia" and noted it was seeking to modernize its military in a transparent fashion.
Hagel said he spoke in Mongolia about the candid exchanges he had during his 10-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, "including my most recent three days in China."
"And I specifically mentioned the conversations I had in China regarding regional security issues and China and America's shared interest in putting our military-military relationship on a stronger footing, which we think is good for the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
Tensions between China and the United States were on full display on Tuesday as Hagel faced questions about America's position in territorial disputes.
Still, Beijing made a rare opening to address that criticism by allowing Hagel to tour China's sole aircraft carrier. He was the first foreign defense official to do so, Beijing said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Ron Popeski)