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With the Japanese flag ripped from the ambassador's car in Beijing, the dispute over ownership of tiny islands in the East China Sea has reached new heights. It's not only China. Japan's reignited dispute with South Korea nearly seven decades after the end of World War II suggests that Japan still has not regained the trust of countries that it once invaded and occupied. The disputes also are a reflection of the decline of Japan, the emergence of new power centers and rising nationalism.

The roots of these territorial disputes go back to the 19th century, when Japan defeated China in the 1894-1895 war, fought over Korea. In the subsequent treaty, China was forced to end its suzerainty over Korea. Japan refused to recognize Korea's independence, occupying it in 1905 and annexing it in 1910.

In early 1895, the Japanese cabinet incorporated the Senkakus - five uninhabited islets and three rocks with a total area of 7 square kilometers, known as the Diaoyu islands to the Chinese - into the country's territory. While tiny, they're much bigger than the islands in dispute between Japan and South Korea, called Takeshima by the former and Dokdo by the latter.

Japan is in control of the Senkaku islands while the Koreans administer the Dokdos.

As the old saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Japan does not recognize China's claim, insisting there's no dispute over the Senkakus. A similar position is taken by Korea on the Dokdos.

The disputes take up a disproportionate share of attention for a country struggling with the aftermath of an earthquake and nuclear disaster, demographic challenges and economic stagnation.

Japan has seen revolving door governments for the last six years. Lee Myung Bak, president of South Korea since 2008, has dealt with five Japanese leaders. Hu Jintao, China's president since 2003, has dealt with seven. Such a quick succession means that no leader is in office long enough to get a grip on foreign policy. So Japan, despite an attempt in 2009 to integrate itself more into Asia, is as reliant as ever on the United States.

Inevitably, the United States is enmeshed in Japan's problems. A Japanese official, Shinsuke Sugiyama, sought and obtained confirmation in Washington August 22 that the Senkaku islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty. That's to say, the United States will help defend these islets if attacked by China. China strongly opposes any application of the US-Japan security treaty to the Diaoyu islands.

The United States does not want to be dragged into a war with China over a bunch of rocks but, at the same time, it needs to be seen as a reliable ally not only by Japan but also by South Korea, the Philippines and others. While on the surface the disputes are over insignificant bits of rock, their real value lies below the seabed, believed to hold large deposits of oil and natural gas.

In fact, Japan and the United States are currently holding a month-long military drill that reportedly involves taking back islands seized by enemy troops. They insist that the exercise is not aimed at any country.

In the dispute between Japan and South Korea, Washington is caught in the middle as its two most important allies in Asia are at each other's throats. The United States, bound by treaty to defend both Japan and South Korea, has been trying to convince Tokyo and Seoul to work more closely together on security matters, but in June, South Korea abruptly backed out of a pact to share military information with Japan. That same month, the three nations did hold joint military exercises.