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The South China Sea is a marginal sea

It is a part of the Pacific Oceanmarker, encompassing an area from Singaporemarker to the Strait of Taiwanmarker of around 3,500,000 km². It is one of the largest sea bodies 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 competing claims of sovereignty by several countries. These claims are also reflected in the variety of names used for the islands and the sea.

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 Chinamarker. In the sixteenth century Portuguesemarker sailors called it the China Sea (Mar da China); later needs to differentiate it from nearby bodies of water led to calling it the South China Sea.

In Vietnammarker, it is officially called "East Sea" by the government of Vietnam. And the name Biển Đông("East Sea" in English) is used in its official map.

The part of the South China Sea within Philippinemarker territorial waters is often given the name "Luzon Sea" (Dagat Luzon) in maps published in the country, after the major Philippine island of Luzonmarker. However, the name "South China Sea" (Dagat Timog Tsina) is still the accepted name for the whole sea in the Philippines.

In Southeast Asia, it was once called the Champa Sea or Sea of Cham, after the maritime kingdom that flourished before the sixteenth century.


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 Sumatramarker and Kalimantan (Karimata Straitmarker), and whose northern border is the Strait of Taiwanmarker from the northern tip of Taiwanmarker to the Fujianmarker coast of mainland China. The Gulf of Thailandmarker 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 metres lower, and Borneomarker was part of the Asian mainland.

States and territories with borders on the sea (clockwise from north) include: the mainland China, Macaumarker, Hong Kongmarker, Taiwanmarker, the Philippinesmarker, Malaysiamarker, Bruneimarker, Indonesiamarker, Singaporemarker, Thailandmarker, Cambodiamarker, and Vietnammarker.

Major rivers that flow into the South China Sea include the Pearlmarker, Min, Jiulong, Redmarker, Mekong, Rajang, Pahangmarker, 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 Rivermarker and Pearl Rivermarker. 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 Islandsmarker( Trường Sa). The Spratly Islands spread over an 810 by 900 km area covering some 175 identified insular features, the largest being Taiping Islandmarker (Itu Aba) at just over 1.3 km long and with its highest elevation at 3.8 metres.

The largest singular feature in the area of the Spratly Islands is a 100 km wide seamount called Reed Tablemount, also known as Reed Bank, in the northeast of the group, separated from Palawanmarker Island of the Philippinesmarker by the Palawan Trench. Now completely submerged, with a depth of 20 m, it was an island until it sank about 7,000 years ago due to the increasing sea level after the last ice age. With an area of 8,866 km², it is one of the largest submerged atoll structures of the world.


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 Strait of Malaccamarker, the Sunda Straitmarker, and the Lombok Straitmarker. Over 1.6 million m³ (10 million barrels) of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malaccamarker, 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 barrel), 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 very important area for the ecosystem.

Territorial claims

In the Twentieth Century, numerous competing territorial claims have arisen over the East Vietnam Sea, particularly since the advent of modern undersea oil and natural gas exploration. Such disputes have been regarded as Asia's most potentially dangerous point of conflict.Both People's Republic of Chinamarker (PRC) and the Republic of Chinamarker (ROC) claim almost the entire body as their own, which claims overlap with virtually every other country in the region. Competing claims include:
  • Indonesia and the PRC/ROC over waters NE of the Natuna Islands
  • The Philippines and the PRC/ROC over the Malampaya and Camago gas fields.
  • The Philippines and the PRC/ROC over Scarborough Shoal.
  • Vietnam and the PRC/ROC over waters west of the Spratly Islandsmarker. Some or all of the islands themselves are also disputed between Vietnam, the PRC, the ROC, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
  • The Paracel Islandsmarker(Hoàng Sa) are disputed between the PRC/ROC and Vietnam.
  • Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam over areas in the Gulf of Thailandmarker.
  • Singapore and Malaysia along the Strait of Johore and the Strait of Singapore.

The PRC and Vietnam have both been vigorous in prosecuting their claims. The Paracel Islands (Hoàng Sa) were invaded (Vietnam's view)by China in 1974 and 18 soldiers were killed. The Spratly Islandsmarker(Trường Sa) 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.

PRC in the years after 2000, trying to resolve issues peacefully, has also publicly announced the adoption of a “bi-lateral joint development” model to jointly develop the disputed area and share the benefit without settling the issue of sovereignty over the area.

The overlapping claims over Pedra Brancamarker or Pulau Batu Putihmarker including neighboring Middle Rocks by both Singapore and Malaysia were settled in 2008 by the International Court of Justicemarker, awardingPedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh to Singapore and Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

See also


  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.

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