EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The geological, tectonic, and geodynamic fingerprint of the elusive Proto South China Sea back-arc basin in northern Borneo

Sabin Zahirovic
Sabin Zahirovic
  • EarthByte Group, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia (

A range of interpretations of regional geology have led to diverging models describing the elusive predecessor marginal basin to the South China Sea, with significant implications for interpreting regional extrusion tectonics and volcanic episodes. Interpretations contrast between the presence or absence of the Proto South China Sea, while models arguing for a Proto South China Sea also diverge in the geodynamic origin of the marginal sea as either 1) a trapped piece of Cretaceous-age proto Pacific (namely, Izanagi) crust, or 2) sourced from back-arc opening along the east Asian margin.

I will provide a comparison of proposed models for the Proto South China Sea, and I will argue that the existence of a Proto South China Sea, including in the region north of Borneo, is a necessity for reconciling multiple and independent geological and geophysical constraints. First, a back-arc basin along east Asia in the Late Cretaceous helps explain tectonic subsidence curves, the presence of Late Cretaceous ophiolites on Mindoro, and also the abandonment of Andean-style arc volcanism on the South China continental margin. Second, regional basin histories and even the tectonic structure of Luzon Island and northwest Borneo suggest continental or arc fragments from east Asia were accreted in both settings. And finally, the ~50 to 20 Ma subduction-related volcanic history on Borneo, the presence of mapped sutures, evidence of subducted slabs in seismic tomography, requires significant south-dipping subduction of a Proto South China Sea. However, interpretations of a number of features, including the Billiton Depression, the Bentong-Raub Suture, and the West Baram Line on Borneo, and the origin of the Natuna Islands granites continue to provoke continued divergence in models for the region.

I will present an updated plate tectonic reconstruction in GPlates that incorporates recent spatial and temporal constraints, such as the west-east division of Luzon island (South China and Pacific affinity, respectively), and the timing of Proto South China Sea back-arc opening, closure, and accretion events. To test the new model, I show that the model conforms to plate kinematic constraints (such as reasonable convergence rates, and associated arc volcanism). In addition, I present new forward models of mantle flow in CitcomS, and compare the predictions to high-resolution P-wave tomography models (e.g. MIT-P08, UU-P07).

Although more geochronological and geochemical constraints are needed to establish the nature and age of the sutures on northwest Borneo, a clearer tectonic model for this area is essential in guiding mineral exploration – as established models have proposed there has been no subduction in this region since ~100 Ma. The new model presented here argues that subduction ceased much more recently, likely by ~20-15 Ma, coinciding with the arrival of the Dangerous Grounds block in the northern Borneo Trough, choking subduction, triggering the Sabah Orogeny, the eruption of Sintang-area adakites (related to slab break-off), and the abandonment of seafloor spreading in the South China Sea at ~15 Ma. Reconciling these interpretations will improve our understanding of paleogeography, basin evolution, sedimentary provenance, and regional geodynamics.

How to cite: Zahirovic, S.: The geological, tectonic, and geodynamic fingerprint of the elusive Proto South China Sea back-arc basin in northern Borneo, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-10720,, 2023.