In The Tussle For The South China Sea, A Mayor Tries To Protect His Island : Parallels China's claims of territory in the South China Sea are alarming its neighbors. The Filipino mayor of the disputed Spratly Islands is on the front line of the dispute.

In The Tussle For The South China Sea, A Mayor Tries To Protect His Island

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are at the center of a territorial dispute between China and its neighbor. Last week, China demanded that the Philippines withdraw from one of the islands. And the Filipinos say the land is theirs. Michael Sullivan met up with the mayor of the archipelago just trying to go about his business.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Eugenio Bito-onon, the wiry 59-year-old mayor of Pag-asa, can't get to his constituency. He's got a busted ride.

EUGENIO BITO-ONON: Yes, our boat is supposed to go to Pag-asa to bring provisions and materials for our project, but our starter got broken, so we need to find a replacement.

SULLIVAN: We're standing on the stern of his busted boat, the Queen Seagull, at a busy harbor on the island of Palawan. It's a two or three-day journey by boat from here to Pag-asa, about 300 nautical miles to the west, an island he first visited almost 20 years ago.

BITO-ONON: When I saw the place for the first time, I said it's perfect. And when you look under water, wow, it's like an aquarium. There's lots of fish and nice corals. It's like a resort. I said I like it here.

SULLIVAN: And so he stayed. Back then, he says, everyone got along.

BITO-ONON: Oh, yeah, it was really very peaceful. Even the fishermen were friendly. And fishing boats from different countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong, they're just docked side by side. And they exchange a cigarette. They exchange liquor. And it's a friendly relationship between the fishermen.

SULLIVAN: Not anymore. Now he says Chinese warships harass boats like his when they journey to the tiny island of Pag-asa, home to roughly 120 civilians and a small military garrison. The warships keep watch as China continues construction on the artificial islands and airstrips it's built nearby. At night, the mayor says, it's easy to see the construction on one reef not 10 miles away.

BITO-ONON: It's a small city, lots of lights and you can see clearly the high-rise crane doing the construction there. During the day you can see at the tip of the runway when the horizon is clear.

SULLIVAN: Mayor Bito-onon says that new airfield and the other construction on China's new island has some of the family members of the civilians on his island afraid.

BITO-ONON: In the middle of the night, a certain wife called me up about this, you know, rumors of war and invasion. And she was crying and said I want my husband to go back to the mainland. So I let the husband leave the island.

SULLIVAN: Invasion aside, Mayor Bito-onon's big worry is that China now has its eye on the resource-rich Reed Bank in between his island and the mainland, well within Manila's 200-mile special economic zone.

BITO-ONON: It's our submerged Saudi Arabia actually. The Reed Bank has a reserved energy deposit that is almost bigger than Kuwait. So we really have to fight for that.

SULLIVAN: And there's another important element of China's reef reclamation frenzy, he says, that's being overlooked.

BITO-ONON: The destruction - the environmental destruction, the digging of clams and destruction of corals.

SULLIVAN: China, he says, pays no attention to the environmental damage he says it's causing.

BITO-ONON: Everything comes from the sea. It's the livelihood. And if there's no, say, arbiter that would broker for peace and a harmonious coexistence, this will just all be destroyed one day.

SULLIVAN: He hopes it doesn't come to that, that the international court rules in favor of the Philippines later this year. In its case against China and its territorial expansion, his dream - to make the Spratlys a protected ecotourism destination to be shared and enjoyed by everyone. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

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