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Philippines' human "buffer" against China's land grab

There are growing tensions between China and its neighbors around the South China Sea
There are growing tensions between China and ... 03:31

The idyllic shores of Pag-Asa in the South China Sea seem an unlikely front line, but the Philippine island is "disputed territory."

Even the Pag-Asa Elementary School is controversial, and Mayor Eugenio Bito-Onon Jr. of the Kalayaan Island Group, which includes Pag-Asa, told CBS News correspondent Seth Doane the Chinese government protested it.

"Because they say it is within their territory; it is within their sovereign territory," Bito-Onon told CBS News correspondent Seth Doane.

Bito-Onon called the school, the houses -- the entire community -- an "exercise in sovereignty," meaning just by living there, it remains a Philippine island. But the Chinese claim it as theirs, and they're rapidly expanding their territory on islands nearby.

The mayor said it seemed more effective to put Filipino civilians on the island than military personnel.

"When it's military to military, when they just confront each other, it's a normal war ... It's the civilian that seems to be the buffer," Bito-Onon said.

John Kimson Paulino and Daryl Kim Tabang teach at the Pag-Asa elementary school. They said the students talk about China.

"I don't think they have a full understanding of what's happening," Tabang said. "They probably don't know to what extent China has gone -- its Coast Guard blocking and intimidating Filipino fisherman, for instance. They probably just know that China is building islands [and] military bases."

Most people on the island told CBS News war was still a far-off fear. But China is on folks' minds -- so much so that Aiza and Arzal Belidan named their daughter China Lyn. She was one of the first born on the island.

"I came up with the name because we're so close to China, [but] our [real] focus here is on jobs... and raising our families," Arzal said.

About 25 families -- roughly 100 people -- live on Pag-Asa year-round. It doesn't look like much, but the government provides housing, electricity and even some food. And for most inhabitants, life is better than it was before.

John B. Allen came for a job in construction and wound up getting married.

"You don't see anyone here other than Filipinos like me," Allen said. "This island is and always will be the Philippines."

Bito-Onon said each birth and each marriage strengthens the Philippines' claim to the island, even as it is "dwarfed" by the expanding Chinese islands around them.

"We just pray that it will not go to the shooting war ... But a miscalculation could happen anywhere within the South China Sea," Bito-Onon said. "Let it be far away!"

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