Although 97% of the land of Hainan Province is made up of the single mass of Hainan Island, the other 3% lies scattered across in South China Sea in the form of the tiny Paracel and Spratly Islands, which are claimed both by China and other nations.
Hainan is the smallest province in China, although its boundaries stretch much further than may initially be assumed when looking at the island.
Hainan Island (known as “Hoi Nam” which means “south of the sea” in Cantonese) is approximately the same size as Belgium and is at the hub of the province.
But China is one of many countries to make claim to the tiny chains of islands between 350km and 1,000km to the south: the Paracels and Spratlys.
Over the past 400 years, these islands have been claimed by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysians, Filipinos, Colonial French and the Kingdom of Brunei.
Collections of over 200 tiny islands, reefs, cays and atolls, the islands were once used as a symbol of power of the South China Sea but now are thought to house an even more valuable commodity: oil and gas reserves.
The islands are sparsely inhabited, with the majority of smaller reefs and atolls too small and unstable for permanent settlement.
This makes them a haven for wildlife, including a huge variety of sea birds and turtles, including both the Green Turtle and the endangered Hawksbill Turtle.
However, communities have experienced a sharp drop in recent times.
It has been claimed by environmentalists that large scale commercial fishing, using both bottom trawling nets and sometimes explosives has had a huge impact on the coral and the marine ecosystems.
Conservationists from the various interested countries are now starting to establish more formal protection for the islands’ fragile ecosystems.