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The South China Sea ranks among the most geographically and geopolitically complex ocean spaces in the world. It certainly appears to have been one of its most vigorously contested, featuring multiple, longstanding and competing territorial and maritime jurisdictional claims. The objective of this chapter is to provide the geographical and geopolitical background to the frequently conflicting national maritime claims made by the South China Sea littoral States. This exercise is designed to provide the necessary contextual backdrop to considerations of the application of maritime joint development mechanisms and/or other provisional arrangements of a practical nature in the South China Sea.
With this in mind, key characteristics of the coastal geography of the South China Sea are outlined, notably the implications of its semienclosed nature and the baselines that have been defined along its coasts. The insular features of the South China Sea, many of which are subject to conflicting sovereignty claims, are then examined with particular reference to their potential maritime claims and role in the delimitation of maritime boundaries. The chapter then outlines the maritime jurisdictional claims of the South China Sea coastal States, including existing maritime boundary agreements and maritime joint development zones, as well as unilateral and historical maritime claims.
Accordingly, a spatial picture of the maritime geography of the South China Sea including the locations and extents of claims to maritime jurisdiction is built up. The chapter then proceeds to highlight the main geopolitical factors that arguably serve as key drivers for the South China Sea disputes. These include longstanding yet still powerful sovereignty imperatives, significant and growing marine resource interests and energy security concerns, crucial navigational and maritime trade considerations and evolving military and strategic factors.