Peter Brookes: Something else to worry about

North Korea's nukes, China's 'instant islands' are threats
Peter Brookes

Peter Brookes

The storm clouds of confrontation continue to form over East Asia – even since I scribbled about it in these pages last month [see my May 1 column, The Pacific may not be so peaceful” at]).

Like a threatening weather pattern stalled ominously over the region, the chances of the dark gray thunder clouds of conflict clearing out anytime soon isn’t likely.

For instance, last month I wrote that the Pentagon assesses that North Korea now has an operational [nuclear-capable], road-mobile, intercontinental ballistic missile — the KN-08 — that is capable of reaching the United States.

Adding to the concern about the new, land-based ICBM is North Korea’s reported test of a sea-launched ballistic missile — or SLBM — last month.

While Pyongyang trumpeted the launch, there is no shortage of questions about it, highlighted by the likely Photoshopped picture of the SLBM rising from the depths, just a short distance behind North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But while it has been reported that the test was actually limited to ejecting the missile from a submerged test barge, and hurtling it up through the water column to the ocean’s surface [an early step in SLBM development], it’s still a big deal.

No, an SLBM isn’t in a launch tube of one of North Korea’s [outdated] diesel subs yet, but the idea of Pyongyang eventually sending nukes to sea — adding more mobility and survivability to its strategic force beyond the KN-08 — isn’t comforting.

Then, of course, there’s China.

The “instant islands” that China has been building in the South China Sea — now reportedly some 2,000 acres of reclaimed land on existing coral reefs — are, as feared, being militarized by Beijing.

News accounts report that the People’s Liberation Army has moved some artillery onto one of the islands, further undermining the “happy talk” that the islands are for search and rescue, storm safe harbor, scientific research, blah, blah, blah.

Based on CNN reporting, the Chinese navy also shooed away a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol plane flying recently near Fiery Cross Reef, which is one of Beijing’s “sand grabs” in the sea’s Spratly Islands.

There’s a better-than-even chance that once airfields on these islands are complete, Beijing will deploy fighters there and declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in an attempt to restrict commercial and military air traffic in the South China Sea.

Worse, a Chinese newspaper — the Global Times, essentially a megaphone for the central government in Beijing — warned of “military confrontation” should the United States interfere with China’s “national territorial sovereignty.”

While no one wants war, the alternative isn’t very inviting either — that is, the creation of a veritable Chinese “lake” in the South China Sea, an important strategic and commercial waterway for the United States, its allies and friends.

And speaking of Asian allies and friends, they’re nervous not only about the Chinese construction challenge and North Korea going ballistic, but the current level of American engagement and leadership in the Pacific, and what it will be in the future.

As such, Washington needs to give some serious thought to these and other regional developments. Otherwise we may find ourselves some short years from now wondering aloud: Who lost Asia?

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald. 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:

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