U.S. warns of ability to take down Chinese artificial islands

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The Pentagon on Thursday ratcheted up rhetoric about China's militarization of islands in the South China Sea, even as the Trump administration presses China for cooperation on North Korea.

(CNN) — The Pentagon on Thursday ratcheted up rhetoric about China's militarization of islands in the South China Sea, even as the Trump administration presses China for cooperation on North Korea.

When asked by a reporter about the ability of the U.S. to "blow apart" one of China's controversial man-made islands, a top U.S. general told reporters, "I would just tell you that the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands."

The officer, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, was asked if he was talking about U.S. military operations during World War II where thousands of U.S. troops died as they fought their way across several islands in the Pacific.

"It's just a fact we had 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 that we've done before; shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact," he said.

McKenzie's words carry particular weight, because he is one of the most senior officers in the Pentagon. As director of the Joint Staff he serves as a top official for Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and frequently is in meetings with both Dunford and Defense Secretary James Mattis. He made clear the US military is "prepared" to "protect U.S. and allied interests in the region."

Verbal tensions between the Pentagon and Beijing increased this week after the U.S. sailed two warships through the South China Sea to demonstrate U.S. naval presence in an area that the US claims as international waters, while the Chinese claim nearly all the area as their territorial waters. The US says a Chinese ship operated in an unprofessional manner close to the U.S. Navy ships.

McKenzie indicated the U.S. would not back off, saying that "we will continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations as is allowed by international law. And we're going to continue to do the things that we're doing."

The Chinese government Thursday called the U.S. assertion that Beijing is militarizing the South China Sea "ridiculous."

But Mattis had said earlier this week that China had not lived up to its claim that it wasn't militarizing the area: "They have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before."

U.S. surveillance has shown the movement of Chinese surface-to-air missiles and air defense systems into the area. Video has also shown a Chinese bomber landing on an island for the first time.

"We are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue, and part of this is we maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific," Mattis said.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "US warns of ability to take down Chinese artificial islands."