By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
June 6, 2010 - Soon after he addressed a major Asia security summit in Singapore yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates elaborated on current issues involving North Korea and China in an interview with BBC's Nick Childs. In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Gates condemned North Korea's March 26 sinking of the freighter Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean sailors, and he expressed frustration with China's suspension of military-to-military relations with the United States over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
In the BBC interview, Gates called the North Korean attack "a very serious issue."
"Here you have an unprovoked, surprise attack," he said. "The international investigation that the South Koreans managed well, I thought, has made it quite clear that this was a North Korean attack. And one has to wonder what they were thinking and whether there are other provocations to come, so I think it is a real concern."
Asked if he's concerned about the United Nations Security Council's resolve to confront North Korea on the matter, Gates said the difficulty is that the North Korean regime is unpredictable and doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks of it.
"There already have been a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions directed against North Korea and against the regime and Pyongyang," he said. "This is one of the great challenges that I think we face on the [Korean] peninsula. Here you have a regime that continually surprises its best friend, the Chinese, [and] engages in provocative behavior. By the same token, none of us want to see the collapse of the North. No one wants to see another war on the peninsula."
The secretary acknowledged that the dilemma has no good answer.
"You can bring together additional pressure," he said. "You can do another resolution at the U.N. But as long as the regime doesn't care what the outside world thinks of it, as long as it doesn't care about the well-being of its people, there's not a lot you can do about it, to be quite frank, unless you're willing at some point to use military force. And nobody wants to do that."
The interview turned to China, and Gates noted that U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintau have called for a sustained and reliable military-to-military relationship between their countries.
He said his own strong feelings on the subject have come from watching the interaction between the United States and the Soviet Union through the strategic arms talks over 25 years or more. Gates has a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University.
"You can argue whether there was ever any arms control involved," he said, "but the dialogue that went on year after year on strategic weapons, on strategic intentions, on strategic planning, on how they thought about nuclear weapons, how each side thought about it, I think played a big role in the course of the Cold War in preventing misunderstandings and miscalculations." That kind of dialogue, he told Childs, would be valuable between the United States and China.
"We're all for it," he said. "I only wish that our Chinese counterparts were as enthusiastic."
While the issue's profile has been high recently, Gates said, the public face of it was preceded with quiet efforts to resolve it over a period of months.
"You know, I visited China in 2007 during the Bush administration in this job as secretary of defense," he said. "President Hu and I and my military counterparts laid out an ambitious agenda of exchanges, exercises, [and] working together on humanitarian assistance [and] disaster relief. It was clear there was political impetus in favor of a growing relationship.
"And we had the arms sales to Taiwan in the Bush administration," he continued. "Nonetheless, some months later -- in fact, last fall -- my Chinese counterpart came to visit, a senior Chinese defense official. We had a great visit, outlined an ambitious agenda again, and then the Obama administration made what I think were very selective arms sales to Taiwan in keeping with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, and the whole thing kind of fell off a cliff."
Gates arrived here today after leaving Singapore this morning. He is scheduled to meet this evening with President Ilham Aliyev, and with Defense Minister Col. Gen. Safar Abiyev tomorrow. He's expected to thank both men for Azerbaijan's contributions in Afghanistan and for its support of the coalition's logistics chain for Afghanistan-bound personnel and equipment, and to discuss possibilities for further military cooperation between the United States and Azerbaijan.