The South China Sea is a marginal sea, part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 kmē. The minute South China Sea Islands, collectively an archipelago, number in the hundreds.
A number of nations, particularly the Philippines, object to the name "South China Sea", in that it implies Chinese sovereignty over the sea, which they dispute.
The International Hydrographic Bureau 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.
States and territories with borders on the sea (clockwise from north) include: the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Macao, Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Within the sea, there are over 200 identified islands and reefs, most of them within the Spratly Islands. The Spratly Islands spread over a 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.
Many rivers flow into the South China Sea, including:
It is a 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).
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. Areas with potential problems include:
- Indonesia and the PRC over waters NE of the Natuna Islands.
- The Philippines and the PRC over the Malampaya and Camago gas fields.
- Vietnam and the PRC over waters west of the Spratly Islands. The islands themselves are also disputed between Vietnam, the PRC, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
- The Paracel Islands are disputed between the PRC and Vietnam.
- Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam over areas in the Gulf of Thailand.
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.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:45:59