WASHINGTON — The United States would welcome Japan and other allies to conduct freedom of navigation operations, a State Department official said Monday following a recent release of a report focusing on Beijing's expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Emphasizing that the United States will "continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," Constance Arvis, acting deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries affairs, told an online press conference with other officials. "Of course, we welcome our allies and partners to do the same and certainly Japan."
The State Department earlier this month released a report studying China's claims in the disputed waters that backed the current US stance that Beijing's assertions are inconsistent with international law and undermine the rule of law in the ocean.
Claiming sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, Beijing has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the area.
China has conflicting territorial claims with four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan in the sea, a key waterway for global trade.
Noting that economic livelihoods and prosperity depends largely on the waterway, Jung Pak, deputy assistant secretary for state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the press conference that it is of "strategic importance" for the United States and for its allies to ensure that there is freedom of navigation.
Pak did not directly refer to freedom of navigation operations, but said the United States and Japan are "very much committed to freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea" and that the two countries are expected to continue to cooperate on the issue.
Robert Harris, an assistant legal adviser at the State Department, said there is "nothing provocative" about simply sailing in the South China Sea and exercising the rights and freedoms that are set out in international law.
The US Defense Department has conducted freedom of navigation operations around the world to challenge maritime claims that unlawfully restrict navigation and overflight rights and freedoms.