US Department of Defense Joint Staff Director Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie.

An escalating war of words between China and the United States regarding the shifting balance of power in the South China Sea continued on Thursday, when a top US official appeared to suggest China’s man-made islands were vulnerable to attack.

When asked during a press briefing about the US military’s capability “to blow apart these man-made islands,” Defense Department Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said America’s armed forces “have a lot of experience” in the area. The question was in reference to disputed islands in the South China Sea that have in the past few years been furnished by China with military facilities.

Declining to rate America’s ability to destroy the islands on a scale from 1 to 10,  McKenzie said that “the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands.”

When pressed to clarify, he said “It’s just a fact. We have a lot of experience in the second world war taking out small islands that are isolated. That’s a core competency of the US military that we’ve done before. You shouldn’t read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.”

McKenzie also reiterated a pledge that Secretary of Defense James Mattis made this week to continue freedom of navigation operations in the disputed territory.

“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.”

China again urged Washington to cease FONOPs on Sunday, after two US warships sailed near the Paracel Islands, which are occupied by the Chinese military.

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