• Kyodo

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The U.S. Navy conducted a so-called freedom of navigation operation in southwestern Japan waters in December, in a move that clashes with Tokyo’s claims of sovereignty.

According to the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Dec. 15 operation involved the navy’s Alan Shepard supply vessel sailing in the vicinity of the Tsushima Strait between Kyushu, one of Japan’s main islands, and South Korea. Its shipboard helicopter also took part.

The move is seen as emphasizing the U.S. stance of abiding by the international rules-based order — even when it conflicts with claims by its ally Japan — in a veiled message to China, which has become increasingly assertive in the East and South China seas.

The Alan Shepard conducted “normal operations within claimed territorial seas to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” the 7th Fleet has said.

The Japanese government has argued that its maritime territory is based on a “straight baseline method” in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, used when there are indentations, islets or islands close to the coast. Its application of the method in 1997 has allowed it to expand its maritime claims.

The United States believes that the low-water line along the coast recorded during a low tide is more appropriate.

Shigeki Sakamoto, a professor emeritus at Kobe University in international law, said, “The United States is opposed to a bold straight baseline method, since it also affects the airspace above the territorial sea.”

The December operation signals the United States is strict about this point even when it challenges an ally’s interpretation, he said.

The United States has asserted its right to navigate similarly in various waters around the world, and has conducted such operations several times in the vicinity of the Tsushima Strait and in the East China Sea since the late 1990s.

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