The Australian's Peter Alford says US Defense Secretary Gates did what he needed to do at the Shangri-La Dialogue by declaring that America would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea. Here's what Gates said:
The goal of the United States has not changed: Our goal is complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. North Korea’s nuclear program and actions constitute a threat to regional peace and security. We unequivocally reaffirm our commitment to the defense of our allies in the region. The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies. And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.
And here's Alford's interpretation of that statement:
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has told Asian governments what most wanted to hear - that Washington cannot tolerate North Korea as a permanent nuclear state. Dr Gates's explicit rejection of containment - the idea of accepting that North Korea will remain a nuclear state, so as to focus on preventing its weapons and technology leaking out - is a necessary restatement of US policy. For one, US President Barack Obama's authority is at stake. He cannot hope to effectively lead a campaign for worldwide nuclear disarmament if Washington accepts a contained North Korea as the best realistic objective.
Perhaps. But there is an alternative reading of Gates' remarks.
First, a point about terminology: Gates may have used the phrase 'nuclear weapons state' in its plain English sense; that is, 'any country that has nuclear weapons'. But under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the term has a much more specific meaning: the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) are a specific group consisting of the US, Russia, China, France and the UK.
So if Gates used the phrase 'nuclear weapons state' in this legal sense, then his declaration about North Korea is pretty unremarkable, since the US does not advocate amending the NPT to allow more states to join that exclusive club. Even India is not a legally-defined NWS, but that hasn't stopped the US from developing a very close nuclear relationship with India.
That leads to a second, practical objection to Alford's analysis: why is a policy of containment necessarily out of step with a commitment to denuclearising the Korean peninsula, or indeed the world? Ultimately, North Korea would need to be disarmed to achieve these goals, but clearly the practical barriers are enormous, so it makes sense to try to contain the problem first (hence Gates' emphasis on the 'grave threat' of North Korean proliferation).
An alternative analysis is that Gates' remarks about North Korean possession of nuclear weapons were a simple restatement of longstanding US policy, and that the emphasis on proliferation suggests that the highest US priority is containing North Korea's nuclear threat.
According to Alford, Gates' pledge that the US will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea is what Asian governments wanted to hear. But for Asian governments, perhaps the more reassuring line came earlier in the speech. China, along with a number of other regional countries, has a longstanding concern that North Korea's nuclearisation will encourage South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan to go down the same path. So perhaps Beijing was reassured by Gates' emphatic re-statement of the US nuclear guarantee to its allies, which makes an independent nuclear capability for those allies unnecessary:
The Republic of Korea and Japan have since become economic powerhouses with modern, well-trained and equipped armed forces. They are more willing and able to take responsibility for their own defense and assume responsibility for collective security beyond their shores. As a result, we are making adjustments in each country to maintain a posture that is more appropriate to that of a partner, as opposed to a patron. Still, though, a partner fully prepared and able to carry out all – I repeat, all – of our alliance obligations. (Emphasis added.)