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Tobin Harshaw

The Tiny Island That’s Key to China’s Maritime Ambitions

Thitu Island is little more than a rock, but the Philippines will lose it at its peril. 

A Philippine navy frigate off Thitu Island in April 2017.

A Philippine navy frigate off Thitu Island in April 2017.

Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

Nobody would ever call Thitu Island a Pacific Ocean paradise. The second-largest of the chain of reefs, shoals and atolls in South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands, Thitu is a sunbaked 92-acre rock, dotted with scruffy trees and long-abandoned military bunkers, eking out existence just a few feet above high tide.

Yet obscure Thitu - known as Pag-asa (“Hope Island”) in the Tagalog language of the Filipinos who inhabit it – has become an object of desire in the increasingly contentious geopolitical dispute involving the Philippines, China and four of their Pacific Rim neighbors: Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. And, thanks to recent actions by the erratic Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, the island and its residents are increasingly vulnerable to China’s vast ambitions across the entire South China Sea.