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 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 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 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 led to calling it the South China Sea.
In China, the traditional name for the sea is Southern Sea (南海; Nán Hǎi). 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.
The part of the South China Sea within Philippine territorial waters is often given the name "Luzon Sea" (Dagat Luzon) in maps published in the country, after the major Philippine island of Luzon. 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.
States and territories with borders on the sea (clockwise from north) include: the mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
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 Palawan Island of the Philippines by the Palawan Trench. Now completely submerged, with a depth of 20 m, it was an island until it sunk 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.
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 very important area for the ecosystem.
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 public portion of the case was heard over November 6-23, 2007, a decision is expected in 2008. Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh is now officially under the sovereignty of Singapore.