MANILA/SINGAPORE – On a clear night, the Filipinos who live on Pagasa Island — a speck in the vast South China Sea — can see the floodlights from giant Chinese cranes working around the clock, dredging sand to build up a nearby reef.
Life on the atoll with its clutch of buildings was for decades leisurely and quiet, with sporadic Internet access and not much to do but fish and stroll on the beach.
Now its 120-odd residents find themselves on the doorstep of a dispute over territory that has fed tensions among some of the world’s biggest powers. Change has come to Pagasa in the constant presence of China.
More than 510 miles (820 kilometers) from the Philippine capital, and defended by a platoon of soldiers with limited weapons, the island is a gateway to reefs that are claimed and occupied by China. Separated from the nearest big Philippine island by a 36-hour boat ride in rough seas, it relies on ad hoc military flights and a quarterly visit from a resupply ship that has to dodge Chinese vessels to dock.
“We’ve become used to the sight of big Chinese ships around Pagasa,” said Nelly Dalabajan, a 28-year-old nurse who went to Pagasa in February for a four-month rotation. “Seeing 30 ships and boats at one time is normal. We’re worried about the Chinese driving us out.”