Peter Brookes: The Pacific may not be so peacefull

Like a moth to a flame, it’s easy to be drawn to issues in the Middle East (Yemen, Islamic State and Iran) or Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine), but it’s important to keep an eye on other emerging foreign policy and national security issues, too.

For example, the Pacific isn’t really that “pacific.”

Let’s start with the bad news. There are the “instant islands” that China is building in the South China Sea’s disputed waters (see my Northern Virginia Daily column, “China building islands with military outposts”). But now Beijing is making things worse.

China is now building an airfield on its sand pilings on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, according to commercial satellite images released by Jane’s Defense Weekly.

Some analysts believe the runway when completed could stretch to 10,000 feet, which could handle a range of civilian – and military – aircraft, extending Beijing’s might far from the mainland.

This latest step is sure to increase tensions.

Things aren’t much better with North Korea. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, Pyongyang may have restarted its Yongbyong nuclear facility. Meaning? More material for more bombs.

This comes amid news in The Wall Street Journal that Chinese experts have told American counterparts that North Korea may have as many as 20 nukes, a number seemingly well beyond some public estimates of its inventory.

It gets worse.

Admiral William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), reportedly said that Pyongyang has developed a nuclear warhead to place atop a ballistic missile — a critical step going from underground testing to field deployment.

(It’s believed North Korea could hit the West Coast of the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.)

This situation is exacerbated by the belief that Pyongyang is working on a road-mobile ICBM, known as the KN-08, which would increase the flexibility and survivability of its strategic forces while decreasing their detectability and “targetability.”

The self-imposed congressional sequestration (i.e., mandatory budget cuts) hampering our military modernization and readiness isn’t a happy story either for America’s ability to protect and advance its Pacific interests. Did I mention China is increasing its defense spending 10 percent this year?

Fortunately, a few glints of sunshine are peeking through the storm clouds.

Just this week, Washington upgraded its military alliance with Tokyo during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While it’s a positive move for addressing the skyrocketing security challenges in the Pacific, it still needs to go further.

There was also news in U.S.-Philippine relations. The Navy Times reported that American military forces may have new access to a number of bases on the island nation – if the Philippine Supreme Court deems it “constitutional.” (U.S. forces left the Philippines in 1992.)

There’s little doubt that political-military developments such as these with Tokyo and Manila are being driven by Beijing’s assertiveness and Pyongyang’s unpredictability — and Washington’s abiding interest in the Pacific staying peaceful.

Unfortunately, as these examples indicate, peace isn’t guaranteed — and seems to be threatened — requiring us, despite challenges elsewhere in the world, to develop and sustain the necessary forces and policies to maintain our Pacific position.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald. Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.