How the South China Sea rifted has long been a puzzling question that is still debated, particularly with reference to the Southwest Sub-basin (SWSB). Analogue modelling remains one of the most useful tools for testing rift models and processes. Here, we present and discuss a series of analogue modelling experiments designed to investigate the rifting process of the SWSB. Convincing geophysical results were compiled to provide realistic constraints to test the experimental results and interpretations. A heterogeneous lithosphere model with a varied lithospheric structure showed tectono-morphological features similar to the natural case of the SWSB, indicating that the initial thermal condition and rheological stratification of the lithosphere should have a dominant effect on the rifting process of the SWSB. Rigid tectonic blocks existed in the continental margin, such as the Macclesfield Bank and the Reed Bank, and they played important roles in both the shaping of the continent–ocean boundary and the coupling between the crust and mantle. The initial thermal condition and rheological stratification of the lithosphere under the South China Sea controlled the propagated rifting process of the SWSB. Extension was centred on the deep troughs between the rigid blocks, and the break-up occurred in these areas between them. The westward rifting propagation is best explained with a heterogeneous lithosphere model characterized by varied lithospheric structure, and it was responsible for producing the V-shaped configuration of the SWSB.