The horizon-scanning staffs of the region’s defense ministries continue to have their work cut out for them. China remains an enigma, reconfiguring its military while strengthening trading links with the West; indications from inside the increasingly insular and bellicose North Korea continue to unnerve; and Japan is maintaining the military modernization and consolidation promised under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of “proactive pacifism.”

North Korea’s intentions are the most difficult to read, and the country’s actions are almost impossible to predict. The nation has a huge military and is believed to have access to a range of biological and chemical weapons as well as to possibly as many as 27 nuclear warheads. Its state-run defense industry may not match the competence of its neighbors’, and claims of successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb in January are not considered credible. However, it appears increasingly feasible that the underground test firing was of components that could form part of such a weapon system.

It is perhaps therefore a relief that the only strikes North Korea has been credited with making on foreign targets were embarrassing and expensive but ultimately non-kinetic cyberattacks on South Korean TV stations and banks, and the American film studio, Sony. Pyongyang has denied involvement with the Sony hackers, who identified themselves as a group called the Guardians of Peace.

The White House and the FBI were quick to attribute the attack to the North Korean regime. Reports published earlier this year suggest this unusually speedy and forthright accusation (cyberattacks are generally difficult to trace back to an identifiable source) was made because the U.S.’s National Security Agency had successfully placed a series of “beacons” on servers used by North Korea’s intelligence service, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and its hacking team, Bureau 121.

 On January 1, China’s president, Xi Jinping, announced a comprehensive restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army. The previous seven regional commands are to be consolidated into four, and for the first time the nation has officially declared a cyber component. Offensive and defensive cyber capabilities will now sit under a unified command that also directs military space operations and electronic warfare units.

“What is most remarkable about this announcement is that it is much akin to a component command in the U.S. military, meaning they are indeed looking at cyberspace as an operational domain, both to defend and go on the offensive,” says Bill Hagestad, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and Mandarin speaker who writes and consults on Chinese cyber warfare. “The bottom line is that this makes the PLA more able to win future wars.”

China continues to claim sovereignty of the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea; Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia also claim some of the islands. China has built extensively on some of the Spratlys, satellite imagery showing an air and naval base constructed on Fiery Cross Reef, while other atolls in the group have been extended, or islands created around reefs, through reclamation. A runway has been built on Mischief Reef, only 140 nautical miles from the Philippine coast.

The island-building may not, however, be primarily intended to further regional goals so much as to distract from farther-flung Chinese aspirations. The country is pursuing a strategy Xi unveiled in 2013 known as One Belt, One Road: This consists of a reinvigoration of historic Silk Road trade routes over land between China and Europe, and a so-called Maritime Silk Road linking the South China Sea, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The PLA has a presence in territories along this new Silk Road, where Chinese interests need to be protected.

“I was the only foreigner at an economic conference in Beijing last September,” says Hagestad. “There was much talk and some laughter about the way the United States has its so-called Asian Pivot policy. Those artificial islands are merely a distraction to keep the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet fixed in place so they [China] can focus on building the One Belt, One Road maritime strategy.”

Given such compelling local reasons, it is easy to see why Abe has continued to pursue a more militarized path for Japan. Article Nine of the nation’s constitution, which forbade Japan from maintaining standing forces or fighting wars as a means of resolving international issues, was reinterpreted by the Diet in 2014. The reinterpretation remains controversial, as it bypassed mechanisms to adapt the constitution, but the current government believes it allows Japan to act militarily in defense of allies, and the nation can deploy forces overseas.