It wasn’t so long ago, says Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., that everyone in the Spratly Islands, his patch of the South China Sea, pretty much got along.
“Oh yeah, it was really very peaceful,” says Bito-onon, a Filipino who’s served for the past five years as mayor of this archipelago of more than 100 small islands and reefs.
“Even the fishermen were friendly, and fishing boats from different countries like Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, they’re just docked side by side,” he says, speaking to NPR on Palawan, a Philippine island east of the Spratlys. “And they exchange cigarettes, exchange liquor. You don’t hear anything about a commotion or heightened conflict — there’s no such thing.”