Cenozoic plate reconstruction of the South China Sea region

Tung Yi Lee*, Lawrence A. Lawver

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

134 Citations (Scopus)


Reconstructions of the South China Sea region at 60 Ma, 40 Ma, 30 Ma, 20 Ma, 10 Ma and 5 Ma are presented. We have attempted to place the South China Sea Basin in a regional tectonic framework. The tectonic evolution of the major blocks surrounding the South China Sea were analyzed, as well as the relative motions of the Indian and Australian plates. We have tried to correct the tectonic models available in this region. A 3-D graphics terminal was used to derive rotation poles for the different tectonic blocks and our model was then tested to determine its self-consistency. When the model conflicted with previous interpretations the input data were evaluated for alternative explanations. At least two, and possibly three, stages of extension can be recognized in this region. The earliest one, active in the Late Cretaceous to Eocene, involved NW-SE extension. The second one, active from the Late Eocene to Early Miocene involved north-south extension. The third stage of extension, which probably trended NW-SE, can be dated as post-Oligocene. The first extensional event produced the NE-SW trending proto-South China Sea and a series of sedimentary basins along the South China margin. Following the southeastward extrusion of Indochina, the proto-South China Sea was mostly consumed at the Palawan Trough. Renewed north-south extension in the South China continental margin started the present-day South China Sea spreading in the Oligocene. The southeastward extrusion of Indochina, blocked by Sundaland, resulted in the NW-SE trending opening of the South China Sea Basin in the Early Miocene. Collision of the North Palawan microcontinental block with the West Philippines block stopped the opening of the South China Sea at the end of Early Miocene. Spreading activity switched to the Sulu Sea Basin in the Middle Miocene but collision between the Sulu Ridge and the West Philippines at Mindanao halted the opening of the Sulu Sea at the end of the Middle Miocene. In the Late Miocene, Greater India continued its northward path and seems to have ripped open the Andaman Sea. In the Pliocene, subduction along the northern Manila Trench placed the North Luzon Arc on a collision path with the East Asia continental margin at Taiwan. Our reconstructions, along with detailed geological and geophysical information, may be used as a predictive tool for basin evolution models and block interactions in this region. The development of the South China Sea Basin, the Gulf of Thailand, the Malay Basin and the central Thailand basins are the result of collision-induced extensional forces. The Sulu, Celebes and Sumatra basins were formed as a consequence of prolonged subduction. The opening of the Pearl River Mouth, West Natuna, South China Sea, Sulu, and possibly Celebes, basins were terminated by various plate collisions. During the course of plate reorganizations major boundary faults have changed their slip senses during different stages of evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-180
Number of pages32
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 1994 Jul 30
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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