The South China Sea (Chinese: Nan Hai 南海/南洋, literal meaning: "South 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 hundreds.

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1 Geography
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3 Politics
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The International Hydrographic Bureau defined it 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 with borders on the sea (clockwise from north) include: the People's Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.


Main article: South China Sea Islands

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 104 identified pieces of land, the largest island being Taiping Island at just over 1.3 km long and with an average elevation of 3.8 metres.

Non-insular structures

There is a 100-km seamount called Reed Tablemount in the Sea in the region of the Spratlys, near Palawan in the Philippines.


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 10 million barrels of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malacca. There are regular reports of piracy, but much less frequently than before the mid-20th century.

The region has proven oil reserves of around 7.7 billion barrels, with an estimate of 28 billion barrels in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 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 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 the entire body. Areas with potential problems include:

  • Indonesia and the PRC over the Spratly Islands (currently occupied by the Chinese) and over the Sarawak offshore gas fields.
  • 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 People's Republic of China 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 (Nansha islands in Chinese, Truong Sa in Vietnamese) have been the site of naval clashes, as when over seventy Vietnamese sailors were killed in fighting at Fiery Cross Reef in 1988. All disputing nations regularly report clashes between naval vessels.

See also: Geography of China

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