Recent tensions between the US and China revolved around Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. While China maintains that the islands are within their sovereign territory, the US has argued that the Spratlys lie within disputed waters.
But, according to an article co-authored by Fu Ying, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, and Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute of the South China Sea, the international community – including the United States – has historically recognized the archipelago as Chinese territory.
"This area in question was initially discovered and named by China as the Nansha Islands, over which China was the first to exercise sovereignty and that exercise has been ongoing," the article reads, according to the China Daily.
"Before the 1930s, there was no dispute over China’s ownership of them, as reflected in many maps and encyclopedias published around the world."
Fu and Wu trace the dispute to the Cairo Declaration of 1943. Signed by the US, UK, and China, it states that "…Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has not seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China."
Four years after this declaration was signed, the Chinese government renamed a number of these islands, including the Nansha Islands and published a map of Beijing’s maritime claims.
"For a long time afterwards, the United States made no objections whatsoever. Given it being a long-term ally of Taiwan and its heavy presence in postwar Asia, the US had every reason to be aware of the existence of the chart," the article reads.
"Obviously, China’s position was recognized and acknowledged."
A hotly-contested region, through which roughly $5 trillion in trade passes annually, the South China Sea is claimed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.
The US has no territorial claims in the region.
In recent months, the US Navy has conducted a series of patrols within the 12-mile territorial limit of the Spratly islands as part of what they term freedom of navigation exercises.
In June, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration may settle the matter. A case filed by the Philippines accuses Beijing of violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by its actions, but US-based intelligence company Stratfor predicts that, no matter the outcome, "China will continue…to adhere to the maritime boundaries marked by the nine-dash line, rendering the court’s ruling largely ineffective."