Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2018, Vol. 28 ›› Issue (7): 957-972.doi: 10.1007/s11442-018-1515-8

• Special Issue: Geopolitical Environment Simulation on the Belt and Road Region • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The geographical characteristics of Nansha Islandsin the South China Sea

Huiping JIANG1,2,3(), Fenzhen SU1,3,*(), Chenghu ZHOU1, Xiaomei YANG1, Qi WANG1,2,3, Fei CHENG1,3,4   

  1. 1. State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    2. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3. China Centre for Collaborative Innovation of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210093, China
    4. Department of Geographic Information Science, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210023, China
  • Received:2017-10-31 Online:2018-07-20 Published:2018-07-20
  • Contact: Fenzhen SU;
  • About author:

    Author: Jiang Huiping (1990-), PhD Candidate, specialized in the research on applications of remote sensing and geographical information system. E-mail:

  • Supported by:
    Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, No.XDA13010401


As is well-known, Nansha Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) are of important strategic position and invaluable ecological value. Therefore, many attentions are paid to either the political and legal aspects of exposed features that matter in the maritime delimitation, or the physical and geographical characteristics of coral reefs that are the predominant structures of these islands. However, it seems that they consistently lose the connection of sciences and humanities in the research of Nansha Islands in the SCS. In this study, we carry out a combinative research, based on remote sensing data using satellite imagery analysis together with historical materials using literature investigation, so as to reconsider to the geographical characteristics of Nansha Islands from a standpoint of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). After thoroughly appraising the statuses of these newly formed sand cays, several high tide features of Nansha Islands are identified. By means of the comparison of satellite images coupled with reference to nautical charting and sailing directions during different time periods, we can conclude that the statuses of these high tide features formed on reef platforms are relatively stable due to the growth of reef-building organisms although their migration patterns are subject to external disturbances, and hence the cursory judgment pursuant to the relevant provisions of the UNCLOS about whether a coral reef belongs to a low tide elevation only based on outdated references or ex parte evidences is not reliable. Moreover, it is accordingly justified to improve further development and perfection of the maritime legislation by eliminating such ambiguities with the growth of coral reefs and the evolution of sand cays being both taken into account.

Key words: coral reefs, sand cays, South China Sea, Nansha Islands, geographical characteristics, UNCLOS