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South China Sea

Name of a significant maritime domain that borders the southern shores of China, the Philippines, Borneo, a northern section of Indonesia, and mainland Southeast Asia. Its area of circa 3,500,000 km2, which equals about 2.5% of the ocean surface, includes the Gulf of Thailand (fig.), the Singapore Strait (fig.), and the Strait of Malacca (fig.). In China, it is called Nah Hai (南海), i.e. ‘South Sea’; in Vietnam (fig.), it is known as the East Sea, and in the Philippines it is referred to as West Philippine Sea. In the past, it was also called the Sea of Cham or Champa Sea, after the maritime Champa Kingdom (fig.) of central and southern Vietnam. Being the second most used sea lane in the world, with one-third of the world's maritime shipping passing through it, the South China Sea is of tremendous geostrategic and economic importance, annually carrying over 5.3 trillion US Dollar in ship-borne trade. Additionally, it is a crucial source for the fishing industry which despite its rather small area accounts for about 12% of the annual global fish catch. This is mainly due to the Spratly Islands, an extensive collection of countless small atoll reefs spread out over a surface area of more than 425,000 km2, where fish come to spawn, after which the eggs and larvae are carried all over this sea by the currents. The South China Sea is also rich in oil and methane hydrates, i.e. natural gas encapsulated by ice crystals. These lumps of minerals are formed at the seabed where the temperature is very cold and the pressure very high thus allowing for ice crystals to form around natural gas, waiting to be extracted, though at present only a few countries have the technology for this, with China being the only one in the region. World reserves of methane hydrates are estimated to be more abundant than oil and gas combined, and the supplies from the South China Sea could purportedly power the Chinese economy for at least a century. These huge reserves have caused several countries to make competing territorial claims over the South China Sea, which has regularly lead to conflicts over disputed and often unrealistic claims and grabs, thus remaining an ever potential hazard, especially with China claiming almost the entire area from the coast of Guangzhou and Hong Kong (fig.), southward and right up to the borders of Vietnam, the Philippines and Borneo, including all of the Spratly Islands, as its own kind of Mare Nostrum, leaving the said nations with only a narrow strip of territorial waters. The South China Sea is also dotted with small rocks and —however small they may be— sovereignty over each rock or sandbar comes attached with a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around it, entitling the owner with all the fish, oil, gas, and mineral resources within it. This has prompted China to make some artificial islands near Taiwan, and —together with the grab of some uninhabited islands just off the coast of the other nations, as well as their claim to all of the atoll reefs, rocks and sandbars in this huge area, allowed them to create a large zone of overlapping territorial bits and pieces to which they lay claim, with utter disregard to the sovereign rights of the other nations involved. The 2016 arbitration tribunal in The Hague has rejected China's claims to economic rights across large swaths of the South China Sea and ruled that these Chinese claims have no legal basis and yet the Chinese continue to disregard that ruling.