Why a military spat between Japan and South Korea could snowball into crisis

A photograph released by the South Korean Defense Ministry appears to show a Japanese plane as seen on board one of its destroyers, the Dae Joyeong, on Wednesday.

(CNN)Japan and South Korea are engaged in a heated military dispute that analysts say could damage the already tenuous geopolitical situation in northeast Asia if the two sides do not reach a resolution.

The spat began December 20 after an encounter between a Japanese plane, which Tokyo said was collecting intelligence, and a South Korean destroyer, which Seoul said was on a humanitarian mission.
Both sides disagree on what happened next -- the Japanese said the South Koreans targeted their aircraft with missile-targeting radar, while the South Koreans said the Japanese plane was flying dangerously low and that the radar "was not intended to trace any Japanese-controlled aircraft."
    The disagreement has quickly escalated, bringing to the fore historical disputes previously on the back-burner and -- in turn -- threatening the region's stability.
    "East Asian geopolitics has been shaken loose and is now unsettled," said Van Jackson, a former US Department of Defense official specializing in the Asia-Pacific.
    "China is seeking to push out the US, North Korea has pulled a jiujitsu move by using summit diplomacy to solidify its status as a nuclear state even as the ostensible purpose is to denuclearize Pyongyang, and the future of the US in the region is less certain now than any time since the 1970s.
    "Amid all this tumult, suppressed animosities are started to crack through the veneer of regional stability."

    A marriage of convenience

    South Korea and Japan are historical adversaries locked in a marriage of convenience, which makes for a complex partnership. Their relationship is still very much colored by the legacy of imperial Japan's occupation and colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
    This revived tension comes at a terrible time for the United States -- the Trump administration is currently preparing for its second summit with North Korea, while also inching towards a key deadline in trade talks with China.
    Shortly after the initial incident, Japan and South Korea held working-level meetings to try to resolve the issue behind closed doors.
    It appears to not have worked -- and neither side is buying the other's explanation.
    Japan released video of the incident from its perspective on December 28. South Korea released its own video on January 4. Each accused the other of misleading the public and distorting the facts.