BEIJING -- The leading candidate for Asia's next flash point is a cluster of more than 400 rocky atolls and reefs -- largely barren and some often submerged by high tides, but possibly rich in oil and gas.
China attempted last month to defuse mounting anxieties over its aggressive power plays this year in the South China Sea's Spratly Islands. But Southeast Asian countries remain anxious about China's intentions.
Six nations -- China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei -- claim sovereignty over all or parts of the Spratlys. All but Brunei have troops on some of the islands.
The Spratlys' vast surrounding seabed may contain large amounts of oil and gas.
The islands also are positioned by vital sea routes between the Pacific and Indian oceans, sea lanes on which Japan is particularly dependent.
Western diplomats here say that the likelihood of the competing claims' escalating into an armed conflict is relatively small for now, in part because China does not yet have the military capability to take and hold the Spratlys.
But, as one Beijing-based envoy puts it, "China is pushing its claims in the area, and pushing hard. . . . Its military has always felt strongly about the issue, and it may feel that it has some advantages now."
Chinese and Vietnamese forces have clashed twice over the Spratly Islands, in 1974 and 1988. Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia all have moved recently to reinforce their claims to some of the islands, but China has most renewed the potential for conflict this year:
* In January, China sent its largest delegation ever to the Spratlys, planting stone monuments there bearing the inscription, "People's Government of Hainan Province," with the stated goal of strengthening "the national sense of coastal sovereignty."
* In February, China's legislature passed a law affirming sovereignty over the Spratlys. That law also covered the Paracel Islands southeast of Hainan, which are claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyutai Islands by China) northeast of Taiwan in the East China Sea, which are contested by Japan, China and Taiwan.
* In May, China signed a contract with a Denver-based company to explore for oil in an area of the Spratlys that is also claimed by Vietnam. Vietnam protested strongly, but China reportedly assured the American contractor that his crews would be protected by its full naval might.
* That promise is buttressed by recent reports that China wants to beef up its air and naval capacity to reach into the South China Sea. These reported efforts include seeking the technology for mid-air refueling of its military aircraft and considering the purchase of its first aircraft carrier, a vessel that was being built in Ukraine for the former Soviet navy.
* Underscoring the potential Chinese use of force in the Spratlys was the announcement in July by Japanese officials that China has acknowledged that one of its ships fired warning shots last December at a Japanese cargo ship near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Japan said 12 such incidents took place last year and two more this year.
* Also in late July, China announced new restrictions on fishing in its off-shore waters, limits that would restrict the number and types of foreign fishing boats that could operate in the South China Sea.
Even as these most recent developments came to light, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen was offering assurances at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila that "China does not seek hegemony or a sphere of influence" in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Qian offered to set aside some of China's territorial claims in favor of cooperatively developing areas of the Spratlys.
Southeast Asian officials reacted warily, given the dissonance between Mr. Qian's statements and China's thrusts this year in the area. And diplomats here say such caution is in order.
"What China said in Manila doesn't mean anything," said a Western diplomat. "It's not any different than what China has said before.
"No one is sure if there is much oil in the Spratlys -- there's been a lot of drilling and not much found. But China is definitely interested in the territory, in exerting its influence and in projecting its power, all of which could provide economic benefits."