The U.S. called for calm and renewed diplomacy Tuesday following China's angry rejection of an international tribunal's ruling against its artificial islands and military buildup on disputed shoals and islets in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon had no immediate comment, but the State Department issued a non-confrontational statement expressing the vague hope that the tribunal's action could now serve as a catalyst for negotiations among the various claimants in the region, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan.
"This decision can and should serve as a new opportunity to renew efforts to address maritime disputes peacefully," the State Department said. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest later said that "this tribunal ruling is final and binding on both parties" -- China and the Philippines, which filed the case.
U.S. interests in the case were aimed at "a peaceful resolution to disputes in competing claims in that region," said Earnest, who spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One taking President Obama to Dallas to honor the five police officers shot to death last week.
In a visit to Vietnam in May, Obama was more forceful in suggesting that China had been acting as a regional bully in the South China Sea.
"Big nations should not bully smaller ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully," said Obama, who stressed that the U.S. would maintain freedom of navigation in the region with the 7th Fleet.
Chinese President Xi Jinping quickly said that his government would pay no attention to the decision while stressing that Beijing sought peaceful resolutions to disputes.
"Our national sovereignty and our maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea will not be affected in any way by the ruling and case brought about by the Philippines," Xi said after meeting with European Union leaders attending the Asia-Europe summit in Beijing.
China has also repeatedly said that the U.S. has no stake in the South China Sea, since the U.S. is not among the 180 countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which formed the basis for the tribunal's ruling.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a lengthy statement denouncing the ruling and defending China's so-called "nine-dash line" that encircles most of the South China Sea on Chinese maps.
"The People's Republic of China solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it," the ministry said.
The ministry charged that the Philippines acted in "bad faith" in pursuing the case. The ruling "aims not to resolve the relevant disputes between China and the Philippines, or to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, but to deny China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea," the ministry said.
China's Global Times newspaper, which often reflects the views of Beijing hardliners, warned the U.S. and Japan against seeking to take advantage of the decision.
"All Chinese people are outraged by this illegal verdict and the world's peace-loving public is astonished by the biased decision that may escalate regional tensions," the newspaper said.
"The so-called arbitration award is nothing but a piece of paper. But if the U.S and Japan use it to pile military and political pressure on Beijing, the Chinese people will firmly support our government to launch a tit-for-tat counterpunch," it said.
Ahead of the ruling, the naval arm of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) launched the first live-drill ever conducted in the South China Sea.
On Sunday, China's CCTV broadcast images of jet fighters and navy ships firing missiles, helicopters taking off and submarines surfacing. The PLA said that "the drill focuses on air control operations, sea battles and anti-submarine warfare."
The U.S. Navy has also stepped up what it calls FONOPS, or Freedom of Navigation Operations Patrols, in the South China Sea near the artificial islands that Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has labeled China's "Great Wall of Sand."
The U.S. destroyers Stethem, Spruance and Momsen have all patrolled recently near Chinese-claimed features at Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruiser Chancellorsville was also present in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said.
A spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, Lt. Clint Ramsden, said the patrols were part of the Navy's "routine presence" in the region, the Navy Times reported. "Patrols by U.S. Navy destroyers like Spruance, Momsen and Stethem -- as well as the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group -- are part of our regular and routine presence throughout the western Pacific. U.S. Navy forces have flown, sailed and operated in this region for decades and will continue to do so," Ramsden said.
China currently has five ships, including a guided-missile destroyer, participating in the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercises hosted by the U.S. off Hawaii and southern California, but there were no immediate signs that China would withdraw its naval contingent to protest the tribunal's decision.
In Congress, many Republicans have been calling on the Obama administration to take a tougher stance with China on its claims in the South China Sea, through which sea traffic estimated to be worth $5 trillion passes annually.
In a joint statement, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, a SASC member and an Alaska Republican, said that "China faces a choice" following the ruling.
"China can choose to be guided by international law, institutions, and norms. Or it can choose to reject them and pursue the path of intimidation and coercion. Too often in recent years, China has chosen the latter," the statement said.
"We expect that the United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we have done in the Western Pacific for more than a century. This includes regularly challenging China's excessive maritime claims and maintaining a persistent presence of surface combatants and rotational aviation assets inside the first-island chain" of the South China Sea, the statement said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.