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The South China Sea is one of the world's most important, strategic, and contentious bodies of water. Yet the origins and development of littoral states' respective claims and the development of international law as it relates to the South China Sea are complicated, confusing, and often poorly understood. This Perspective provides a primer on the South China Sea's political geography — that is, the study of state and nonstate actors and their varied relationships with spaces for territorial purposes. It focuses on the South China Sea's physical geography; the development of littoral states' respective claims to portions of the South China Sea, including islands, rocks, and low-tide elevations; and the increasingly important role of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Funding for this research was provided by the generous contributions of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy (CAPP) Advisory Board. This research was conducted within the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy, part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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