If it came down to it, the U.S. military has a track record of "taking down" small islands such as the artificial and fortified ones China has created in the disputed South China Sea, a U.S. general said Thursday.
"The United States military has a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands," Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said in response to an over-the-top hypothetical at a Pentagon news briefing.
McKenzie, the Pentagon's Joint Staff director, said he was not making threats and his audience "shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact. It's just a fact."
"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," he said.
McKenzie's statements were in the context of the long-running dispute between the U.S. and China over that country's military buildup and territorial claims on several of the islet chains and atolls in the South China Sea. China's territorial claims conflict with those of Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations in the region.
China has fortified the artificial islands with anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles while building runways capable of handling long-range bombers and barracks for the People's Liberation Army.
In response, the U.S. last week canceled China's invitation to participate in the annual RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercises off Hawaii. The U.S. also sent the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Higgins and the Ticonderoga-class cruiser Antietam into the South China Sea, where they sailed within 12 nautical miles of areas claimed by China in the Paracel Islands.
It was the sixth "freedom of navigation" exercise in the South China Sea by the U.S. since President Donald Trump took office, and McKenzie said the U.S. is prepared to continue with such exercises as a form of protest to China's territorial claims. The U.S. has also periodically sent military aircraft over disputed areas in the region.
Before McKenzie made his remarks, China's Foreign Ministry called on the U.S. to stop "hyping up" the South China Sea issue, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.
"Hyping up militarization in the South China Sea by some people in the U.S. is quite preposterous, just like a thief crying 'stop thief,' " Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
She appeared to be referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said Wednesday in Hawaii that the U.S. would continue to confront the Chinese buildup in the South China Sea. Mattis was en route to Singapore for meetings with regional allies.
Hua said that U.S. forces in the region far exceed those deployed in the South China Sea by China and neighboring countries.
"China is not the first country or the one deploying the largest amount of weapons in the South China Sea, nor is it the most militarily active country in the region," Hua said. "So who is pushing 'militarization' in the South China Sea? The answer is quite clear."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.