Vietnam speaks out after U.S. warships sail near Paracel Islands

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Responding to a question about whether the US was able to "blow apart" the bases, Lt. Gen. McKenzie noted that the military has a great deal of experience in "taking down small islands" in the western Pacific, referring to America's bloody "island-hopping" campaign against the Empire of Japan in World War Two.

China's Defense Ministry on Thursday said it hoped for continued exchanges with the American military despite being disinvited from a major USA -sponsored naval exercise this summer.

"China was not the first country to deploy weapons in the South China Sea, nor is it the country with the most weapons there, and neither is it the country with the most frequent military activities" there, she said. The South China Sea has always been a theatre for a global game of chess, but more importantly, it is closely linked to the maritime sovereignty of China, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Hua also questioned whether U.S. Navy "freedom of navigation" operations were really about preserving the right for ships to sail through the region or an attempt to maintain hegemony. One "shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact", he said, referring to the United States military's maneuvers in the Western Pacific during the Second World War against Japanese-controlled islands such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Tarawa.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said American officials were "hyping up militarization in the South China Sea", describing Washington's stance as "preposterous, just like a thief crying "stop thief".

Talking about the operation, Hua said that "by straying away from the wide sea lanes in the South China Sea, US warships deliberately trespass into the neighbouring waters of China's relevant islands or reefs from time to time, and justify it as a "freedom of navigation operation".

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Tensions have also been heightened by recent satellite photographs that appear to show truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island.

Mattis in February unveiled the US National Defence Strategy which made clear Washington will focus on Asia in the context of China's growing military might.

The change in military staff in the USN's Pacific command has coincided with the rise of Donald Trump and signals a transition in the USN's South China Sea policy, perfectly mirrored by Trump's hawkish counterpart, Xi Jinping.

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.

Meanwhile, Chinese Ministry of Defence spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday that the country's sole operational aircraft carrier - the "Liaoning" - has reached initial combat readiness.

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