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Get up to speed on John Kerry

It seems to be official -- President Barack Obama will nominate Massachusetts senator and fomer presidential candidate John Kerry to be the 68th U.S. secretary of state. We'll have plenty more coverage of Kerry in the days to come, but here are a few pieces to get you started:

James Traub looks at why the administration settled on Kerry to fill Hillary Clinton's shoes.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written extensively on Kerry's Vietnam years, looks at Kerry's very diplomatic upbringing. (For a more critical take, see Gordon Adams on why senators shouldn't run Foggy Bottom.) 

Back in September, Kerry weighed in at FP with his thoughts on the GOP's foreign policy. The article previewed his own pugnacious address at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

If you're interested in what Kerry's been up to in recent years, see Traub's July 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, which follows the senator on a trip to Afghanistan in Pakistan. In 2010, the National Journal's Michael Hirsh looked at Kerry's growing skepticism on the war in Afghanistan.

As a longtime senator, Kerry obviously has friends on Capitol Hill, but if Republicans are planning attacks on him, they may choose to focus on his work as the Obama administration's point man on engaging Bashar al-Assad's regime -- albeit before the Syrian strongman's brutal response the current uprising. You're likely to hear reference to a March 16, 2011 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, in which Kerry avoided discussion of Syria entirely during his prepared remarks, then told a questioner, “President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had."

For general information about Kerry's rise to power, see the seven-part biography prepared by the Boston Globe staff during his 2004 presidential run. Joe Klein's 2002 New Yorker profile also still holds up for its analysis of how Kerry developed his foreign-policy views. 

As Kerry takes on what will almost certainly be the highest position in a remarkable political career, it's also worth taking a look back at how that career began, with his 1971 testimony to Congress on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It was in that speech that he famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"  

Forty years later, he will be one of the ones tasked with making those decisions, and hopefully, avoiding those mistakes.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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China's political geology

Japan and China have generally based their claims to the Senkakus/Diaoyus on past treaties and historical records. But it seems that Beijing is calling in the geologists:

After making its first aerial incursion into Japanese-controlled airspace near disputed islands, China compounded tensions with Japan by bolstering its territorial claims at the United Nations.

On Dec. 14, two days before elections in Japan, China submitted to the world body an 11-page report citing the continental shelf’s geology to claim ownership of the islands in the East China Sea, which may be surrounded by undersea oil and natural gas fields.

“Physiognomy and geological characteristics show that the continental shelf in the East China Sea is the natural prolongation of China’s land territory,” China said. On that basis, China extends its claim to resource rights beyond the standard 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Continental Shelf claims are addressed in Part VI of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In case you're wondering...

"The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance."

The treaty gives states wide rights to explore and use natural resources in their shelf, but also notes that this control "must not infringe or result in any unjustifiable interference with navigation and other rights and freedoms of other States" -- a concept China has had some disagreements with recently.

The continental shelf issue has been discussed quite a bit in reference to claims in the Arctic. In 2007, Russia sent a submarine to plant a flag under the North Pole, in an effort to reinforce its claim that the region falls within its continental shelf. The U.S. may soon also seek to define its shelf in the region , though the Senate's refusal to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty could make this tricky.