Spratly islanders fight boredom, not China worries

PAG-ASA ISLAND, South China Sea (AP) — This speck of a sun-splashed island in the turquoise South China Sea has little sign of the tensions that have consumed politicians and diplomats in distant Asian capitals.

Six different nations are pressing their stake to all or part of these potentially oil- and gas-rich waters teeming with fish. Most recently, the Philippines and Vietnam have been wrangling with China in a noisy territorial dispute that is dominating this week's Asian security forum in Bali.

And yet, here on Pag-asa, the only sounds are the waves slapping the shore and the wind whistling in the ears. At high noon, fighting off sleep is a struggle.

There are no cars, newspapers, Internet connections or shopping malls on an island that mostly consists of a single gravel airstrip and some structures. This, one of the nine islands, reefs and shoals occupied by Philippine troops, is also claimed by China, whose looming presence and rising military power is a worry for outgunned neighbors.

Two Filipino police officers, looking bored, say there hasn't been a single crime for years.

"One big problem really is how to kill time," said Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. of Kalayaan town, which includes far-flung Pag-asa.

"After fishing, walking around, playing billiards and cards, what else can one do next?" wondered the bespectacled mayor.

The tadpole-shaped, 91-acre (37-hectare) Pag-asa, or 'hope' in the Tagalog language, is the biggest of the Philippine-held islands in the South China Sea's Spratlys archipelago. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also claim the islands.

The battle for ownership has settled into an uneasy standoff since the last fighting, involving China and Vietnam, killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988.

Tensions flared again this year after the Philippines and Vietnam separately accused China of encroaching into their territorial waters, sabotaging oil exploration and harassing fishermen. China, which claims the entire South China Sea on historical grounds, acknowledges some of the incidents in what it says are its waters, and Beijing has warned other claimants to stop exploring for oil and gas without its permission.

The incidents, accusations and feelings of hurt national pride carried over to Bali and this week's meeting of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. On Wednesday, China announced it was ready to firm up existing nonbinding guidelines for behavior in the contested waters.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario balked, saying the guidelines have no teeth and that his country plans to take China to a U.N. tribunal that handles maritime border disputes.

And at the opening of Vietnam's National Assembly on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung talked tough too, saying Hanoi will "resolutely and comprehensively ... implement measures to defend the country's sovereignty, protect fishermen, economic and trade activities and protect oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities under its sovereign seas."

Washington says it is ready to play a role to peacefully resolve the row, but China has warned the U.S. to stay away.

On Pag-asa, where about few dozen people live since the Philippine government lured civilians starting in 1978 with free food and other incentives, the worrisome rhetoric has reached through news from satellite TV or by cellphones — although the signal is often cut by bad weather, poor infrastructure or unpaid bills.

It takes days to reach Pag-asa by boat across often-turbulent waters from the nearest Philippine municipality in Palawan province, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the east.

One family fled in fear last month but the rest stayed.

A longtime resident, Obnor Lenasic, said the news does not bother villagers. He said nationals from rival claimants have learned to live together in the disputed region. They wave at each other when their fishing boats cross at sea. Filipinos sometimes barter coconut for Chinese cigarettes, he said.

In the past, Chinese and Vietnamese forces would fire warning shots in the air when others get near their islands. Filipinos would raise fish on skewers to signal that they were just fishing. The soldiers would smile and spread their palm to beg for some of the catch, Bito-onon said.

Another resident, Aisa Bilidan, said she named her baby daughter born on Pag-asa last March China-lyn, after the Philippines accused Beijing of being a bully.

Except for a few rusting anti-aircraft guns, their turrets capped by plastic to avoid damage from the salty air, and the presence of troops, Pag-asa resembles a typical Philippine rural village — serene and backward.

Four Filipino lawmakers Wednesday defied protests from the Chinese Embassy in Manila and flew to the island, carrying with them two new Philippine flags to replace a tattered one flapping in the breeze.

The lawmakers asked the villagers about their concerns but nobody mentioned the Spratlys dispute. One wanted a better grass-cutter to clear an airstrip of weeds. Another sought a Jeep to move things around the community, and a soldier appealed for help in repairing a desalinating machine for drinking water.

Bito-onon told the lawmakers that turning Pag-asa into a bustling civilian community, with sustainable livelihood in fishing and tourism, would be the strongest argument for the Philippine territorial claim.

He told The Associated Press on Thursday that he was working on a solution to lure more people and tourists to the remote island: an Internet connection, which he hopes to set up with government help in the near future.

"I think it will help if people know that after a nice swim on the island, they can take a break and connect to their Facebook accounts," Bito-onon said. "I have a feeling that that will work."


Associated Press writers Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Niniek Karmini in Bali, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • First China air force drills in 'far offshore' Pacific
    First China air force drills in 'far offshore' Pacific

    China's air force has carried out its first ever military drill over the western Pacific Ocean, state media said, highlighting Beijing's growing military reach. Several aircraft from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) on Monday flew over the ocean via the Bashi Channel, which runs between Taiwan and the Philippines, the official Xinhua news agency said. "This is the first time that the PLA Air Force conducted such drills in an airspace far offshore from Chinese coastlines," Xinhua cited …

  • Shorter hours for rail lines tomorrow
    Shorter hours for rail lines tomorrow

    The Metro Rail Transit (MRT), Light Rail Transit (LRT) and the Philippine National Railways (PNR) will have shorter hours tomorrow for the replacement of defective railroad tracks during the Holy Week. …

  • Noy increases allowances for cops, soldiers
    Noy increases allowances for cops, soldiers

    President Aquino has signed a joint congressional resolution raising the daily subsistence allowance for both members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP). Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Aquino signed last March 27 the merged Joint Resolution 2 of the Senate and Joint Resolution 26 of the House of Representatives. Speaking to reporters, Lacierda yesterday said the daily allowances of police officers and soldiers were raised from P90 …

  • Oil firms raise gas prices today
    Oil firms raise gas prices today

    This year’s Holy Week break will be accompanied by an increase in local pump prices after oil companies announced yesterday a P1.10 per liter hike for gasoline and P0.60 per liter for diesel effective today. “Phoenix Petroleum Philippines will increase the prices of gasoline by P1.10 per liter and diesel by P0.60 per liter effective 6 a.m. of March 31, 2015 to reflect the movements in the prices of refined petroleum products in the international market,” said Phoenix Petroleum, an independent …

  • DFA denies dropping Phl claim to Sabah
    DFA denies dropping Phl claim to Sabah

    The Philippines has never offered to drop its Sabah claim in exchange for Malaysia’s support for Manila’s arbitration case against China over the West Philippine Sea issue, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday. “In the context of our friendly bilateral relations, our two countries have been for years exchanging ways on how to address the issue of the extended continental shelf (ECS) in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said in explaining the DFA’s …

  • Pagcor remits record high P5 B to national treasury
    Pagcor remits record high P5 B to national treasury

    The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) has remitted P5 billion in cash dividends to the National Treasury, fully settling all its arrears incurred in the last several years. Pagcor chairman and chief executive officer Cristino Naguiat Jr. said with this year’s remittance, the state-owned gaming firm has fully settled all remaining arrears in cash dividends that were incurred by the previous administration since 2005. Pagcor’s cash dividends to the National Treasury under its …

  • Maysak moves closer to Phl
    Maysak moves closer to Phl

    The typhoon with international name Maysak slightly accelerated as it moved closer to the Philippines yesterday, threatening to dump rains over eastern Luzon this weekend, the state weather bureau said. Rene Paciente, senior weather forecaster of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), said Maysak was spotted at 2,175 kilometers east of Mindanao as of 1 p.m. yesterday. Paciente said based on their latest forecast, Maysak is likely to affect …

  • Phl gets P2-B climate projects from Germany
    Phl gets P2-B climate projects from Germany

    The Philippines is getting 41 million euros or around P2 billion from the International Climate Initiative (ICI) of Germany that will fund 10 bilateral projects to address the impact of climate change. Climate Change Commission (CCC) vice chairman Lucille Sering yesterday met with Norbert Gorissen – head of the International Climate Finance of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety – to discuss the projects, some of which will be …


Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Poll Choice Options