If the Asia-Pacific region is becoming, in the words of Hillary "We came, we saw, he died" Clinton, "the strategic and economic center of gravity," then the South China Sea may just be the strategic center of that strategic center.
At first glance, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this area of the Pacific. Stretching from the southern shores of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan in the north to Malaysia and Indonesia in the south, it covers about 3.5 million square kilometers and contains three archipelagos containing over 250 islands, reefs, shoals, atolls and sandbars, most of them containing no indigenous population, and many of them submerged for part or all of the year.
Upon closer inspection, however, the waters comprising the South China Sea are of central importance to the region. It is the second busiest sea lane in the world, and contains proven oil reserves of over 7 billion barrels, with an estimated 28 billion barrels total and 266 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
As the sea's importance becomes more and more pronounced, and as the region itself sees its major players asserting themselves more aggressively on the world stage, the area has become a flashpoint for disputes between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Now, tensions in the area are threatening to spill over into armed confrontation.