Adrift on complex waters: geographical, geopolitical and legal dimensions to the South China Sea disputes



Publication Details

C. Schofield, 'Adrift on complex waters: geographical, geopolitical and legal dimensions to the South China Sea disputes' in L. Buszynski & C. Roberts(ed), The South China Sea Maritime Dispute: Political, Legal and Regional Perspectives (2015) 24-45.


The South China Sea is often characterised as a complex and highly contested maritime space. This large, semi-enclosed sea is host to convoluted coastal geog - raphy, complicated in particular by the presence of numerous island groups and other insular features of diverse types. Problematically, many of these offshore features are subject to assertions of sovereignty by multiple states. Moreover, the fact that the South China Sea is bordered and largely encircled by claimants with often competing national interests gives rise to pressing concerns of a geo - political nature. Adding to the complexity of this scenario are international legal uncertainties, especially with respect to key law of the sea issues, such as the definition of baselines, the regime of islands, historic rights, and con cerning potential extended continental shelf rights. As a consequence of contested sover - eignty over South China Sea islands, coupled with the above-mentioned geo - graphical and legal complexities, together with competing geo political interests, broad, though ill-defined, areas of overlapping maritime claims exist in the South China Sea. These multifaceted and interrelated factors contribute to the seemingly intractable nature of the territorial and maritime disputes that exist among the South China Sea littoral states. The objective of this chapter, therefore, is to explore geographical, geopolitical and legal dimensions of the South China Sea disputes with a view to highlighting and, to the extent possible, clarifying issues arising. The chapter concludes that the the resolution of these long-standing and arguably increasingly contentious disputes is unlikely in the near term, suggesting that the South China Sea states are indeed likely 'adrift on complex waters' for the foreseeable future, as the title to the contribution suggests.

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