No shots were fired, no one was injured, and the most potent weapon employed was a water hose. By the standards of modern war, Sunday's encounter between a US surveillance vessel and a group of Chinese naval ships, was a drop in the ocean — but 48 hours later the ripples were still spreading.
The Pentagon accused the Chinese of "harassment" in international waters; Beijing denounced the Americans for operating illegally in its exclusive economic zone. Most strikingly, the price of oil rose by $3 a barrel. What is it about this particular patch of ocean that generates such heat and anxiety over an apparently trivial incident?
On a map the South China Sea is a shallow tropical pond scattered with tiny desert islands, but geopolitically it is one of the most tense and complicated waterways in the world. Half a dozen countries squabble over the islands it contains; the world's richest and most powerful countries depend on the shipping lanes on the surface of the ocean, and gaze greedily at the oil which is believed to lie below.
If the military planners' nightmare scenario of a superpower war in Asia were ever to come true, the South China Sea might very well be where it all starts.