South China Sea

The South China Sea, showing surrounding countries and neighbouring seas and oceans
The South China Sea, showing surrounding countries and neighbouring seas and oceans

The South China Sea is a marginal sea south of China. It is a part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 km². It is the largest sea body after the five oceans. The minute South China Sea Islands, collectively an archipelago, number in the hundreds. The sea and its mostly uninhabited islands are subject to several competing claims of sovereignty by neighboring nations. These competing claims are also reflected in the variety of names used for the islands and the sea.




South China Sea, natural resources and competing national interests.
South China Sea, natural resources and competing national interests.

The International Hydrographic Organization defines the sea as stretching in a southwest to northeast direction, whose southern border is 3 degrees South latitude between South Sumatra and Kalimantan (Karimata Strait), and whose northern border is the Strait of Taiwan from the northern tip of Taiwan to the Fujian coast of mainland China. The Gulf of Thailand covers the western portion of the South China Sea.

The sea lies above a drowned continental shelf; during recent ice ages global sea level was hundreds of meters lower, and Borneo was part of the Asian mainland.

States and territories with borders on the sea (clockwise from north) include: the mainland China, Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Major rivers that flow into the South China Sea include the Pearl, Min, Jiulong, Red, Mekong, Rajang, Pahang, and Pasig Rivers.



The South China Sea opened after around 45 million years ago when the Dangerous Grounds were rifted away from southern China. Extension culminated in seafloor spreading around 30 million years ago, a process that propagated to the SW resulting in the V-shaped basin we see today. Extension ceased around 17 million years ago. Arguments have continued about the role of tectonic extrusion in forming the basin. Paul Tapponnier and colleagues have argued that as India collides with Asia it pushes Indochina to the SE. The relative shear between Indochina and China caused the South China Sea to open. This view is disputed by geologists who do not consider Indochina to have moved far relative to mainland Asia. Recent marine geophysical studies by Peter Clift has shown that the Red River Fault was active and causing basin formation at least by 37 million years ago in the NW South China Sea, consistent with extrusion playing a part in the formation of the sea. Since opening the South China Sea has been the repository of large sediment volumes delivered by the Mekong River, Red River and Pearl River. Several of these deltas are rich in oil and gas deposits.


Islands and seamounts

Within the sea, there are over 200 identified islands and reefs, most of them within the Spratly Islands. The Spratly Islands spread over an 810 by 900 km area covering some 175 identified insular features, the largest being Taiping Island (Itu Aba) at just over 1.3 km long and with its highest elevation at 3.8 metres.

There is a 100-km wide seamount called Reed Tablemount in NE Spratlys, separated from Palawan Island of the Philippines by the Palawan Trench. Now about 20m under the sea level it was an island until it sunk about 7,000 years ago due to the increasing sea level after the last ice age.



It is an extremely significant body of water in a geopolitical sense. It is the second most used sea lane in the world, while in terms of world annual merchant fleet tonnage, over 50% passes through the Straits of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. Over 1.6 million m³ (10 million barrels) of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malacca, where there are regular reports of piracy, but much less frequently than before the mid-20th century.

The region has proven oil reserves of around 1.2 km³ (7.7 billion barrels), with an estimate of 4.5 km³ (28 billion barrels) in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 7,500 km³ (266 trillion cubic feet).

According to studies made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines, this body of water holds one third of the all world's marine biodiversity, thereby making it a vey important area for the ecosystem.


Territorial claims

Competing territorial claims over the South China Sea and its resources are numerous. Because the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea allows for a country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to extend 200 nm (370.6 km) beyond territorial waters, all the nations surrounding the sea can lay claim to great portions of it. The People's Republic of China (PRC) has stated its claim to almost the entire body. Recent reports indicate the PRC is building an aircraft carrier battle group to secure energy lines in the South China Sea. Areas with potential problems include:

The PRC and Vietnam have both been vigorous in prosecuting their claims. The Paracel Islands was seized by China in 1974 and 18 soldiers were killed. The Spratly Islands have been the site of a naval clash, in which over seventy Vietnamese sailors were killed just south of Chigua Reef in March 1988. Disputing claimants regularly report clashes between naval vessels.

ASEAN in general, and Malaysia in particular, has been keen to ensure that the territorial disputes within the South China Sea do not escalate into armed conflict. As such, Joint Development Authorities have been setup in areas of overlapping claims to jointly develop the area and dividing the profits equally without settling the issue of sovereignty over the area. This is true, particularly in the Gulf of Thailand.

The overlapping claims over Pedra Branca or Pulau Batu Putih by both Singapore and Malaysia has been brought to the International Court of Justice and the case is expected to be heard in 2007.


Names for the sea

South China Sea is the dominant term used in English for the sea, and the name in most European languages is equivalent, but it is sometimes called by different names in neighboring countries, often reflecting historical claims to hegemony over the sea.

The English name is a result of early European interest in the sea as a route from Europe and South Asia to the trading opportunities of China. In the sixteenth century Portuguese sailors called it the China Sea (Mare da China); later needs to differentiate it from nearby bodies of water lead to calling it the South China Sea.[1]

In China, the traditional name for the sea is Southern Sea (南海; Nánhǎi). In contemporary Chinese publications, it is commonly called South China Sea (南中國海, Nán Zhōnggúo Hǎi), and this name is often used in English-language maps published by China. In Vietnam, it is called the Eastern Sea (Biển Đông); this name is sometimes used by Vietnamese mapmakers in foreign-language publications.[1] In the Philippines, it is sometimes called the Luzon Sea, after the major Philippine island of Luzon. In Southeast Asia, it was once called the Champa Sea or Sea of Cham, after the Malayo-Polynesian maritime kingdom that flourished before the sixteenth century.


See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 Tønnesson, Stein (2005). Locating the South China Sea. In Kratoska, Paul et al., eds. Locating Southeast Asia: geographies of knowledge and politics of space. Singapore: Singapore University Press. p. 203-233.

Further reading


External links

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