(CNSNews.com) – Amid simmering U.S.-China tensions in the South China Sea, a top U.S. general on Thursday underlined the military’s readiness to “protect U.S. and allied interests in the region,” and made a reference to the U.S. experience in “taking down small islands” in the Pacific during World War II.
“We continue to seek areas to cooperate with China where we can, but where we can’t we’re prepared to certainly protect both U.S. and allied interest in the region,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.
He declined to say whether China or North Korea posed a bigger security threat, saying the threats were very different, and both were taken seriously, but that it was not “useful, actually, to compare the two.”
McKenzie was asked about China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, built in support of its territorial claims in an area hotly disputed among several nearby nations.
“On a scale of one to ten,” a reporter asked, “what’s the ability of the United States military to blow apart one of these man-made islands?”
McKenzie declined to use the suggested scale, but added, “I would just tell you that the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific, taking down small islands.”
Asked later whether he had been referring to World War II – “and what message are you trying to send to China?” – the general replied that “it’s just a fact.”
“We have a lot of experience, in the Second World War, taking down small islands that are isolated,” he said. “That's a core competency of the U.S. military that we've done before. You shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.”
The U.S. accuses China of militarizing the area – despite an undertaking not to do so – and last week responded to its activities there by rescinding an invitation to Beijing to participate in a major international military exercise in the Pacific this summer.
That move followed the recent landing of Chinese long-range, nuclear-capable bombers on an island in the Paracel group (known in China as Xisha) which is claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. China has also deployed surface-to-air missiles on islands that it claims.
Early this week two U.S. Navy warships sailed near the Paracels in a deliberate exercise of its right to do so. (The U.S. is not itself party to the various South China Sea disputes but says it strongly supports freedom of navigation in the crucial waterway for global sea-borne trade.)
Asked Thursday whether he anticipated China changing its behavior in the area soon, McKenzie said he could not say what China would or would not do.
“I can tell you that we’re going to continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations, as allowed by international law, and we’re going to continue to do the things that we're doing,” he said. “ I couldn’t speculate as to what China's actions in the future might or might not be.”
China’s foreign ministry on Thursday called U.S. accusations that it was militarizing the South China Sea “preposterous,” saying that it was the U.S. who was in fact doing so.
"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," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a briefing. “So who is pushing ‘militarization’ in the South China Sea? The answer is quite clear.”
She said China was justifying in deploying “necessary and limited national defense facilities on its own islands and reefs.”
An op-ed in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times Thursday predicted more U.S. “provocations” on the horizon in the South China Sea
“China must build up its capacities so that it can launch a powerful counterstrike if the U.S. adopts extreme intervention in the South China Sea,” it said.
“In addition to deploying defensive weapons on the islets and reefs, China needs to build a strong deterrence system consisting of mobile naval, land-based and air-based forces to ensure it is able to hit back against any challenges in a showdown.”