The spats are not just between traditional competitors like Japan and China, but between key U.S. allies in Asia. Disputes between Japan and South Korea over tiny islands in the Sea of Japan have been significantly strained by President Myung-bak Lee’s unprecedented visit to one in August 2012, and Japanese legislature’s vociferous criticism of the South Korean president. Historical enmity stemming from Japan’s occupation of South Korea has made security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo impossible, even on the exchange of critical military information in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Furthermore, domestic politics in the region do not bode well for regional relations. The likely return of conservative Shinzo Abe as Japanese prime minister after the Dec. 16 elections would not be so troubling, except that he will probably need a coalition to run the government. A union with the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan could moderate Abe’s nationalism, but that may be difficult. Abe could instead join forces with the party of ultra-right wing political maverick Ishihara Shintaro, the outspoken former governor of Tokyo who this year provoked Japan to nationalize the Senkakus, inciting protests across China. Even without Ishihara, Abe is almost certain to tack harder to the right on military issues, as he did when he was last prime minister, from 2006-2007. Some Japanese political insiders think Abe might repudiate the August 1993 apology for using comfort woman in Korea during World War II (one of the most contentious issues between the two countries), further inflaming Seoul-Tokyo tensions. The status quo among China, Japan, and Korea is now shifting in troubling and perhaps irreparable ways.