Test of wills between Philippines and China on remote Spratly island About 250 Filipinos live on Thitu Island, the largest and most inhabited island of the Spratlys, in the South China Sea. But Chinese ships are never far away.

On a remote island, a test of wills between the Philippines and China

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We report today on two ways that China asserts itself in global affairs. First, we go to the South China Sea, which the United States, Japan and the Philippines are meeting to discuss today. China has expanded its territorial claims in the South China Sea in recent years, and the Philippines is pushing back. NPR's Emily Feng visited a sleepy little island at the center of the standoff.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In 1997, Judi Masagnay (ph) received marching orders to move to Thitu Island - or Pag-asa, as it's called in the Philippines - a spit of sand some 30 hours by boat from civilization, in the middle of what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. It was like "Cast Away" - no electricity, no signal, no fresh water and just six other people. But he found an inner peace.

JUDI MASAGNAY: (Through interpreter) I liked it so much. I don't see myself living anywhere else because I love it here.

FENG: Twenty-seven years later, he's still here, along with 227 full-time residents these days, including military personnel. The community is a work in progress. They now have a school and health clinic and just got 24/7 electricity last year...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Tagalog).

FENG: ...And this Easter, their first ever Catholic Mass. It's all part of the Philippines' effort to seed what looks like an authentic community, to bolster its territorial claim to the island, because on top of the typhoons and the loneliness, this tiny island is also claimed by other powers, most notably China. From morning until night, a handful of Chinese coast guard ships and fishing vessels float on the horizon, patrolling Thitu Island, waiting for an opportunity to occupy it themselves.


FENG: Right now the community of a few dozen bamboo huts carries with it the feeling of a tropical Jamestown or even a moon colony, pioneers building a new society in pretty rough conditions. The pioneers include Leah Valdez Natural, now 50 years old. She moved to the island in 2002 to try growing fruits and vegetables.

LEAH VALDEZ NATURAL: As of now, ma’am, we try to grow dragon fruit.

FENG: She says the tiny island is now actually nearing capacity. And she says their simple existence is a political act allowing the Philippines to assert its identity and, in recent years, stake a claim against that of China's.

VALDEZ NATURAL: We are Filipino community. So that's why we need to develop.

FENG: It's a community the Philippines started laying the foundations for in the 1970s as a way to fend off competing claims from China, Taiwan, Vietnam and France.


FENG: Are you Kuya Larry?

Fisherman Larry Hugo is well aware of the tensions. He's a bit of an amateur blogger. And a decade ago, he was the first resident to film China's construction of an artificial reef nearby called Subi Reef.

LARRY HUGO: (Through interpreter) The Chinese are now the biggest problem. If we were not here, perhaps the Chinese would claim and occupy Pag-asa.

FENG: That's why in 2023, the Philippines expanded its coast guard station on Thitu to face down a stronger than ever Chinese navy and coast guard. Here's the area's mayor, Roberto del Mundo.

ROBERTO DEL MUNDO: I think it will come to war.

FENG: When? I ask him.

DEL MUNDO: Maybe tomorrow or next year. Because of this status, they are always harassing our fishermen and the military.

FENG: Now the Philippines is stepping it up one more notch. Last year, Manila started allowing tourists to visit in the hopes of turning the remote island into a getaway for intrepid travelers. Tourism officer Ken Hupanda is helping lead this effort.

KEN HUPANDA: You know, civilianize the place.

FENG: He's got lots of ideas on how to rebrand the island.

HUPANDA: So we're planning to actually set the record for the longest sea urchin grill.

FENG: But there's one problem.

What is the Starlink problem?

HUPANDA: Starlink problems, yes.

FENG: The Wi-Fi. The island is so remote, they're trying Starlink, Elon Musk's satellite communication service. But it keeps cutting out, and Hupanda's been in an epic back-and-forth with customer service.


FENG: Thitu's weak connection to cell and Wi-Fi service, as I found out, is one symptom of how tenuous the Philippines' claim on this island is, a fact I'm confronted with again when I head out to the ocean with resident Rolly dela Cruz to try my hand at spearfishing. A one-hour sail out, and we find ourselves among Chinese fishing vessels. Huge lights blaze from the boats used to attract shoals of fish.

Is it like this every night?

ROLLY DELA CRUZ: As of now, yes, because the weather is good. So you can see all those lights around us.

FENG: They're bright enough to create a glowing ring around Thitu Island, casting the night sky orange. It's a reminder that although this island may be occupied by the Philippines now, Chinese boats are always nearby.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Thitu Island in the South China Sea.

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