China and Japan both spend fairly small percentages of their GDP on defense. Japan, at 1%, spends less as a fraction of GDP than any other country in the top 15. China, at 2%, has a defense/GDP ratio less than half that of the United States. Both have extra economic capacity, so continued tensions could easily lead to increased defense spending, and defense spending spirals can end in conflict.
Journalists sometimes wonder why the U.S. doesn't do more to ease tensions. After all, President Theodore Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of a war in eastern Asia, so maybe President Obama could win a second prize by facilitating agreement between China and Japan over disputed islands and other issues.
But the U.S. has bigger concerns than winning gold medals. The primary strategic imperative for the U.S. is to prevent any Eurasian country from attaining a level of security that would allow it to concentrate on building a navy that could challenge U.S. Navy. Whenever a Eurasian country appears to be ascendant, the U.S. will support its rivals. If any of these rivals gain the upper hand, the U.S. will switch sides. The best possible situation is constant Eurasian tension and conflict. As George Friedman of Stratfor put it last week:
U.S. national strategy must be founded on the control of the sea. The oceans protect the United States from everything but terrorism and nuclear missiles. The greatest challenge to U.S. control of the sea is hostile fleets. The best way to defeat hostile fleets is to prevent them from being built. The best way to do that is to maintain the balance of power in Eurasia. The ideal path for this is to ensure continued tensions within Eurasia so that resources are spent defending against land threats rather than building fleets. Given the inherent tensions in Eurasia, the United States needs to do nothing in most cases. In some cases it must send military or economic aid to one side or both. In other cases, it advises.Establishment media refuse to think about such possibilities. A Washington Post writer recently dismissed the idea, thinking that it was so absurd that producing evidence to the contrary was not necessary:
there is an assumption in China that the black hand of America benefits from bad blood between the two neighbors. That is not the case, but if a conflict erupts in the East China Sea, truth will be the first casualty.France became the most powerful country in Europe by strategically encouraging Germany to destroy itself in the Thirty Years' War. The strategy was managed by Father Joseph, perhaps the most pious statesman Europe has ever known. Britain survived for centuries in a bad neighborhood by playing the same game.
It is hard to argue with the strategy. The last Asian power with hegemonic ambitions and a free hand attacked the U.S. With modern weaponry China could make Peal Harbor look like a production of the Barley Townswomen's Guild. Better that they fight over there than attack us here.