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One way to look at the growing military tensions over a few tiny islands in the East China Sea is to see in recent events a straightforward case of power politics. China is rising, Japan is in the economic doldrums and the Korean Peninsula remains divided. It's only natural that China would try to reassert its historical regional dominance. And it's just as natural for Japan to feel nervous about the prospect of becoming a kind of vassal state. (The Koreans are more accustomed to this role, vis-à-vis China.)

Being subservient to American power, as Japan has been since 1945, was the inevitable consequence of a catastrophic war. Most Japanese can live with that. But submission to China would be intolerable.

And yet, because East Asian politics remains highly dynastic, a biographical explanation might be just as useful. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, once the top industrial bureaucrat of wartime Japan. Imprisoned by the Americans as a war criminal in 1945, Kishi was released without trial at the beginning of the Cold War, and was elected prime minister as a conservative in 1957.

Kishi was a nationalist with fascist tendencies during the 1930s and 1940s. After the war, an equally deep aversion to communism made him a staunch ally of the United States; Richard Nixon became a close friend. His lifelong quest was to revise the pacifist Japanese constitution, written by the Americans just after the war, and turn Japan into a proud military power once more.

Mr. Abe's greatest wish is to complete the project that eluded his grandfather: Abandon constitutional pacifism and bury the war crimes of Kishi's generation, while remaining allied with the United States against China. As a right-wing nationalist, Mr. Abe feels compelled to resist the dominance of China, if only rhetorically for the time being.

One of Kishi's greatest Cold War allies – apart from Nixon – was South Korean president Park Chung-hee, a strongman who came to power in a military coup a year after Kishi resigned as prime minister. Park, too, had a dubious wartime career. Under the Japanese name of Takagi Masao, he served as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. He graduated from a military academy in Manchuria, where Kishi had once ruled over an industrial empire that was built on Chinese slave labour.

Like Kishi, Park was a nationalist. But, apart from his sentimental wartime connections to Japan, his anti-communism was incentive enough to continue warm relations with the imperial power that had brutally colonized Korea for a half-century. Park Geun-hye, South Korea's current President, is his daughter.

Ms. Park adored her father at least as much as Mr. Abe loved his grandfather, but the result of her dynastic connection is the opposite. To be seen as a Korean nationalist today, she must distance herself from some of her father's political ties, especially his links with Japan. While still admired by many South Koreans for rebuilding the country from the ruins of war, his legacy is tainted by wartime collaboration. So his daughter must confront Japan over territorial disputes, to avoid inheriting the stigma of his past.

The case of the current Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping, is perhaps the most complicated of the three. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the top leaders of the communist revolution. A guerrilla leader in the war against Japan, he helped to defeat Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in China's civil war, became a member of the Central Committee, and then chief of propaganda, vice-premier and governor of Guangdong.

An impeccable communist career, one might think, giving his son no need to distance himself or to complete a frustrated ambition. But Mr. Xi's nationalism, too, has a history.

Chairman Mao Zedong's main aim was to consolidate his revolution at home. His nationalist credentials were so impressive that he could afford to be relatively easy on former enemies. Territorial disputes over unimportant islands could be laid to rest. He did not even bother to reclaim Hong Kong from the British.

It was only when Deng Xiaoping opened the door to trade with capitalist countries that anti-Japanese sentiments were deliberately stirred up. Neither Marxism nor Maoism could be used to justify China's joining the capitalist world. This left an ideological vacuum, which old-fashioned nationalism soon filled. The more the leadership opened up the Chinese economy, the more it stoked popular anger over past wrongs, especially those committed by Japan.

The man who was most responsible for Deng's open-door policies was none other than Mr. Xi's father. Always a pragmatic communist, the elder Xi had been the target of several purges under Mao, when relative moderates were frequently denounced as counter-revolutionaries. His son appears to follow in this pragmatic tradition, open to business with the world. That is why he, too, like Deng's reformers, must burnish his nationalist credentials by standing up to Japan and asserting Chinese dominance in East Asia.

None of these leaders – Mr. Xi, Mr. Abe or Ms. Park – wants a real war. Much of their posturing is for domestic consumption. One reason why they can engage in this dangerous brinkmanship is the continuing presence of the United States as regional policeman. America's armed forces are the buffer between the two Koreas, and between China and Japan.

The U.S. presence allows East Asia's rival powers to act irresponsibly. The only thing that might change their behaviour would be a U.S. military withdrawal. In that case, the three countries would have to come to terms with one another by themselves.

But that is still regarded by the Americans, Japanese, Koreans and probably even the Chinese as too much of a risk. As a result, the status quo is likely to persist, which means that nationalist grandstanding over conflicting territorial claims is far from over.

Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College.

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