Brendan Taylor thinks that, contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom, the South China Sea isn't all that important:
I should start by saying that my scepticism regarding the strategic significance of the South China Sea is largely a reaction to the flurry of recent op-eds and essays identifying this area as a potential trigger for great power conflict. I doubt that such a trigger really exists, certainly not one with the potential to impact upon Asia's larger strategic order.
The reasons for my scepticism become clear when we compare the South China Sea with Asia's two most widely accepted flashpoints, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon have argued that the problem of Taiwan could spark a nuclear war involving 1.5 billion people and produce a fundamental change in the international order. Similar estimates suggest that a Korean conflict would cost somewhere in the vicinity of US$ 1trillion and 500,000 lives during its first 90 days.
It's difficult to envisage a scenario where a skirmish in the South China Sea could erupt into a conflict of that magnitude. For this reason, I just don't think it's a real flashpoint.