MANILA–In many ways, the towns on the atolls of the South China Sea are just like communities elsewhere: They have houses, post offices, schools, health clinics, and citizens who use them.
But the Chinese, Philippine and Vietnamese settlements are unusual in at least one way: They were all planted on once-empty slivers of land to strengthen their governments’ territorial claims.
In creating them, their governments aim to humanize an often abstract debate, making homes and families–rather than barren rocks–something they can justify defending in an area rife with competing territorial claims.
It is a process that has been under way for years, but one which appears to be gathering pace as tensions intensify.
China recently created another island on a shallow reef in the South China Sea, according to aerial photos published by the Philippines last week. Most recently, China’s deployment this month of an oil rig to waters also claimed by Vietnam has damaged bilateral relations and triggered anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
The disparate South China Sea villages are in many ways the front line in this struggle for regional control.
“The main problem is the isolation. Let’s say, the people who live there don’t care about night life,” said Eugenio Bito-onon, the mayor of Kalayaan municipality, comprising six islets controlled by the Philippines in the disputed Spratly Islands group.
Mr. Bito-onon, who was re-elected for a second term a year ago, manages Kalayaan from an office 280 miles away in the city of Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan. He said it is easier to find staff and other resources in Puerto Princesa, though he travels regularly to Pag-asa, the largest of the Kalayaan group, to meet with the 200 constituents there.
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