The South China Sea plays a major geopolitical role as the relatively small body of water poised between China and the rest of Asia, bordered by eight countries and at the centre of one of the world’s main shipping routes.
A series of complex tectonic events along the edge of what is now the Chinese coastline opened up the basin of the South China Sea 45 million years ago.
Before this, mainland China and Borneo were part of the same huge landmass, although they are now separated by nearly 2,000 kilometres of sea.
Its strategic importance at the heart of Asia makes it of key global importance: it funnels 50% of the global shipping fleet in and out of the second busiest shipping lane in the world, the Strait of Malacca, on an annual basis.
This narrow strip of sea joins the south-west of the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, through which one quarter of the world’s traded goods are carried every year, including over 10 million barrels of crude oil every day.
Such economically valuable cargo is a target for the piracy which is common across the southern area of the sea and the straits.
The South China Sea is also thought to be lucrative in its own right, with proven oil reserves of 7.7 billion barrels and an estimate of the total volume to be anywhere between 28 and 213 billion barrels.
Reserves of natural gas have also been found, and are estimated to total around 7,500 km³.
Exploitation of these reserves may prove geopolitically difficult as many of the bordering nations lay claim to islands and reefs which make up the nearest land to which these resources can be attributed.
Estimates also suggest that the South China Sea holds one third of the world’s marine species, making it a hugely bio-diverse body of water.