Island Standoff: Philippines and China Clash in a Test of Wills

Amidst the tranquil expanse of the South China Sea lies Thitu Island, a small yet significant outpost embroiled in a constant struggle for sovereignty. Captured in an aerial view on March 9, 2023, Thitu Island appears serene, but its inhabitants contend with a persistent adversary: China.

Life on Thitu is uncomplicated, its residents often remark, save for the ever-present intrusion of Chinese vessels. From sunrise to sunset, Chinese coast guard ships patrol the waters surrounding the island, shadowing Philippine vessels in a tense maritime dance. As night falls, the distant glow of Chinese fishing fleets illuminates the horizon, their glaring lights luring shoals of fish while casting a metaphorical shadow over Philippine sovereignty.

Erwin J. Dela Cruz, a stalwart officer of the Philippine coast guard stationed on Thitu Island, voices a sentiment shared by many: "I get so annoyed with China, because this island is ours. But they still come close with their boats sometimes and act very aggressively.

Stretching less than a mile in length, Thitu Island stands as one of the largest among the Spratly Islands, a collection of strategic outcrops in the South China Sea. Despite their modest size, these islands hold immense importance, nestled amidst bountiful fishing grounds and crucial maritime trade routes. Alongside the Philippines, neighboring nations like Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia stake their claims, challenging China's sweeping assertions over the region.

Yet, China remains the primary contender for territorial dominance, asserting control over vast swathes of the South China Sea despite a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal in the Hague that rebuffed many of its claims. In response, neighboring countries are forging stronger regional security alliances.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. signals a proactive approach, seeking to establish agreements on security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. A White House summit with President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida aims to solidify these efforts. Concurrently, joint patrols around the Spratlys involving the Philippines, the United States, Australia, and Japan underscore a united front against China's maritime expansionism.

China's ambitions are evident in its extensive efforts to reclaim and fortify rocky reefs and sandbars dotting the South China Sea. Through land reclamation projects and the deployment of formidable coast guard and fishing fleets, China asserts its territorial claims with unwavering resolve, prompting a delicate dance of power dynamics in these contested waters.

In recent months, tensions between China and the Philippines have escalated, reaching fever pitch in confrontations centered around the submerged reef known as Second Thomas Shoal. The standoff intensifies as Chinese coast guard vessels repeatedly unleash high-pressure water jets at Philippine resupply boats. December and March witnessed alarming collisions between vessels from both nations near the contested shoal.

Enter Thitu Island, or Pag-asa as named by the Philippines, and Zhongye by China—a solitary civilian-inhabited outpost amidst the Spratly Islands. Its 250 steadfast residents view their serene existence as both refuge and defiance. Anchored in their steadfast occupation, they stand as a formidable obstacle to China's territorial ambitions.

Larry Hugo, a weathered fisherman hailing from Palawan province, epitomizes the island's resilience. "They really want to take the island, but there is just one problem for them: We are here, the civilians are here," he asserts. Amidst the rhythmic lull of the waves, Hugo and his compatriots maintain an unwavering presence, a testament to their resolve in safeguarding Philippine sovereignty.

Originally resettled from various parts of the Philippines, Thitu's inhabitants share a common narrative of perseverance. For Hugo, the island's serene waters offer solace amidst geopolitical turmoil. Yet, these waters bear witness to more than just tranquil moments; they reflect the shifting tides of regional power dynamics.

With a weathered gaze, Hugo recounts Thitu's tumultuous past, where encroaching Vietnamese fishing boats once posed the greatest threat. Accusations of cyanide use to decimate marine life echoed across the waves, leaving a trail of ecological devastation in their wake. Amidst these challenges, Thitu Island stands as a bastion of resilience—a testament to the enduring spirit of its inhabitants amidst the tempest of geopolitical strife.

In the serene waters surrounding Thitu Island, a quiet struggle unfolds beneath the shimmering surface. Chinese fishermen, drawn by the bounty of its waters, plunder live corals and endangered giant clams, leaving a trail of ecological devastation in their wake. The once-teeming fish stocks around Thitu have plummeted by more than two-thirds since 1993, a grim testament to the toll of unchecked exploitation.

Amidst this environmental crisis, the encroachment of Chinese vessels further compounds the island's woes. Since 2011, the ominous presence of the Chinese coast guard looms, their patrols often resulting in tense confrontations with Thitu's fishermen. Undeterred, one resident, Hugo, captures these encroachments on film, hoping to shed light on the escalating tensions.

In 2014, Hugo's footage unveils the brazen expansion of Subi Reef, a strategic outpost in China's territorial ambitions. Despite his efforts to alert Philippine authorities, Hugo is met with indifference, his calls for action falling on deaf ears. However, a shifting political landscape under President Marcos signals a newfound resolve to defend Philippine sovereignty.

The Filipinos had the gumption to say, stop, and we're not going to allow this anymore," declares Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro. As Hugo's viral videos garner international attention, the Philippine government takes decisive steps to counter China's encroachments.

Yet, China remains adamant in its assertions, denying the Philippines' legitimate claims to Thitu Island and its surrounding waters. To safeguard its interests, the Philippines fortifies its defenses, constructing a new coast guard station and bolstering its military presence on Thitu.

Life on Thitu Island mirrors the resilience of pioneers in hostile terrain—a microcosm of defiance amidst adversity. Amidst the tranquil beauty of its surroundings, Thitu embodies a beacon of resistance, a testament to the enduring spirit of its inhabitants in the face of encroaching threats.

On Thitu Island, life unfolds against a backdrop of isolation and hardship, a remote outpost in the vast expanse of the South China Sea. Only in the past year has electricity become a constant presence, illuminating the island's nights and paving the main road with concrete. Yet, modern amenities remain a luxury; most families still lack running water, relying on sporadic resupply boats for their basic needs.

The island's desolate landscape, devoid of native vegetation, underscores its inhospitable nature. Survival hinges on the infrequent arrivals of resupply vessels, a lifeline for the island's resilient inhabitants. Situated far from civilization, the nearest town in Palawan is a grueling 30-hour boat journey away, even in favorable weather conditions. Only those endowed with patience and fortitude endure the harsh realities of life on Thitu.

A turbulent history of colonial rivalries and territorial disputes has long plagued Thitu and its neighboring reefs, islands, and atolls. In the 1930s, verbal sparring between the French and the Republic of China echoed over their contested control. Subsequent decades saw fleeting claims by Filipino entrepreneur Tomas Cloma and the Republic of China, now Taiwan, before the Philippines solidified its occupation in 1974.

The island's transformation into a permanent settlement began in the mid-1990s, a gradual process marked by solitude and longing. Judy Masagnay, among the island's earliest residents, recalls the emotional toll of isolation in those early years. By 2002, the Philippines actively recruited civilians to bolster its territorial claim, offering subsidies to entice families to call Thitu home.

Yet, despite these efforts, Thitu remains a place of stark simplicity, where leisure activities are scarce, and boredom is an ever-present companion. Gerald Fernandez, a local fisherman, jests that drinking is the favored pastime, punctuated by spirited karaoke sessions that fade into the night under the watchful eye of a nightly curfew.

Roberto Del Mundo, mayor of Kalayaan municipality encompassing Thitu, reflects on the shifting tides of geopolitical tension. From a period of relative calm in the late 1980s to present-day pessimism, Del Mundo foresees a bleak future marred by the specter of conflict. As China's assertiveness escalates, the prospect of war looms ever closer, casting a shadow over the fragile tranquility of Thitu Island.

As tensions simmer in the South China Sea, rhetoric from Chinese state-run media warns of potential consequences for those challenging China's territorial claims. Amidst this geopolitical posturing, Philippine Defense Secretary Teodoro asserts the nation's determination to defend its sovereignty, emphasizing the imperative of safeguarding its rights under international law.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the Philippines charts a bold new course for Thitu Island, known locally as Pag-asa, envisioning it as a utopian retreat for adventurous tourists. Rejecting militarization in favor of civilianization, Ken Hupanda, a Kalayaan tourism employee, plans to launch regular boat tours to the Spratlys, aiming to attract visitors to the island's pristine shores. A sea urchin eating contest slated for May aims to rebrand Thitu as a haven for leisure seekers.

In recent years, the Philippines has endeavored to transform Thitu into a family-friendly destination, investing in infrastructure and social services. Filling an eroding airstrip, building a health center, and subsidizing teachers for the island's school-age children signal a commitment to sustainable development. Nasreen H. Guarin, the resident midwife and multi-faceted healthcare provider, underscores the island's self-reliance, emphasizing the need for residents to make independent decisions in times of crisis.

Despite the rudimentary conditions, Thitu's inhabitants remain steadfast in their allegiance to the Philippines. Leah Valdez Natural, a resident who gave birth to one of only two children known to be born on the island, embodies this unwavering commitment. As she tends to her dragonfruit plantation, she envisions a future intertwined with Thitu's tranquil landscape, a testament to the enduring spirit of the Filipino community.

We stand for the West Philippines Sea," declares Valdez Natural. "As a Filipino, not as a Chinese community. We are a Filipino community. That's why we need to develop it for the Philippines." In the face of adversity, Thitu Island emerges as a beacon of national pride, a testament to the resilience and determination of its inhabitants in safeguarding their homeland.

As China intensifies its presence in the Spratlys, the region becomes a focal point of geopolitical maneuvering. Over the past decade, China has bolstered its military infrastructure, solidifying its foothold in contested waters. Mayor Del Mundo reveals China's latest endeavor: the construction of three additional artificial sandbars near Thitu, signaling an escalation in territorial assertiveness.

Yet, despite China's efforts, the resolve of Thitu's Filipino inhabitants remains unshaken. Incentivized by subsidies offering free rice and water, more families are drawn to the island, swelling its population. However, the municipal government cautions that Thitu's fragile ecosystem can only support a maximum of 350 residents, constrained by limited land and water resources.

Construction crews labor tirelessly, tasked with expanding housing and creating a sheltered port to accommodate larger vessels. Amidst these developments, Thitu experiences a momentous occasion—its inaugural Easter Mass, officiated by a visiting Catholic priest. The coast guard extends hospitality, hosting a dinner and serenading residents with acoustic melodies, fostering a sense of community and normalcy amidst the remote island's isolation.

Reflecting on his future, Hugo the fisherman muses with a hint of humor, "I want to live forever if I am strong. But if my body becomes weak, I will return to the mainland because Pag-asa does not have a cemetery." His laughter carries a bittersweet truth, encapsulating the complexities of life on Thitu—a delicate balance between resilience and the inexorable passage of time.

In the shifting tides of geopolitical strife, Thitu Island stands as a microcosm of resilience, where the indomitable spirit of its Filipino inhabitants triumphs over adversity. As China asserts its dominance in the Spratlys, Thitu remains a beacon of national pride, a testament to the unwavering commitment of its residents to safeguard Philippine sovereignty.

Amidst the challenges of isolation and limited resources, Thitu evolves—a burgeoning community fueled by hope and determination. From the inaugural Easter Mass to the camaraderie fostered by coast guard dinners, efforts to normalize life on the island forge bonds of solidarity amidst the tranquil expanse of the South China Sea.

Yet, amidst the laughter and camaraderie, a somber truth lingers—a reminder of the fragility of life in this remote outpost. As Hugo jests about returning to the mainland for a cemetery, his words echo a poignant reality: on Thitu Island, life is both fleeting and precious.

In the face of uncertainty, Thitu's inhabitants persevere, their resilience a testament to the enduring spirit of the Filipino people. With each passing day, Thitu Island remains steadfast—a symbol of hope and defiance in a sea of turmoil.