PENTAGON - China's militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea will not scare off the United States, which is promising to continue carrying out so-called freedom-of-navigation exercises despite the rising threat.
“I would just say that the United States military’s had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands,” Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, said Thursday when asked whether the U.S. could blow apart any of the Chinese-made islands.
“We have a lot of experience in the Second World War taking down small islands that are isolated. So, that’s a core competency of the U.S. military,” McKenzie said, though he added China “shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.”
The U.S. Navy has been carrying out a series of exercises aimed at challenging China’s claims that parts of the South China Sea are part of its territorial waters, most recently by sailing two U.S. Navy warships near the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam.
China questioned the operation earlier Thursday, calling claims that it has been militarizing the South China Sea “ridiculous.”
“This sounds like a case of a thief crying ‘stop, thief’ to cover their misdeeds,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a briefing.
“The United States military presence in the South China Sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined,” she said.
U.S. defense officials say China has been moving both surface-to-air missiles and air defense capabilities to islands in the South China Sea.
Buildup of region criticized
Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis criticized China’s military buildup in the region.
“We have seen in the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” Mattis told reporters, accusing Beijing of backtracking on a 2015 promise by President Xi Jinping to then-President Barack Obama.
Mattis also said China is the only country “that seems to take active steps to rebuff” freedom-of-navigation operations in international waters.
The U.S. defense secretary spoke while on his way to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a gathering of Asian defense officials and other leaders.
His comments came after the Pentagon last week rescinded an invitation for China to participate in the RIMPAC maritime exercises later this year, citing China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman rejected Mattis’ accusations Thursday but said ties between Beijing and Washington were “stable on the whole” despite the “hyped-up” accusations.
Spokesman Ren Guoqiang also expressed hope Mattis would visit China soon.
“The two sides have been maintaining communication and coordination on the details,” he said.
VOA's William Gallo contributed to this report.