Or just an accidental bump between Chinese and American warships, as high-stakes manoeuvring gets out of hand.
Or the arrest by China's navy of hundreds, not just dozens, of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters, sparking US voices to support Hanoi against Beijing - or the other way around.
Fanciful scenarios? Certainly.
But the impact of a conflict over a storm-tossed and otherwise unremarkable stretch of water south of China and bordered by most South East Asian states would be far-reaching.
The shipping of Middle Eastern oil to Japan would be at risk, north-east Asian economies could stall, trade between China and South East Asia could be blocked in tit-for-tat recriminations and much more if the world's two biggest powers became locked in combat. (read more)