Philippine civilians claim disputed South China Sea island

China is building brand new islands and air strips in the South China Sea along some of the world's most vital trade routes.
China is building brand new islands and air s... 02:52

PAG-ASA, Philippines --The U.S. military is concerned about the growth of China -- the literal growth of China.

China is building brand new islands in the South China Sea along some of the world's most vital trade routes. China has warned U.S. military planes to stay away. One real island claimed by a U.S. ally is being surrounded by all this.

You'd think being the mayor of a remote, tropical island would be easy. But Eugenio Bito-Onon Jr., is on the front lines of a dangerous international dispute.

The 100 or so people living on Pag-asa, a tiny, 90-acre speck in the South China Sea, are here to claim this land for the Philippines.

There are growing tensions between China and ... 03:31

Bito-Onon explained why civilians are there and not just the military.

"When it's military to military, it's a normal war," he said. "It's the civilian that seems to be the buffer."

The Philippine military has been here since the 1970s. But China says Pag-asa is theirs.

Controlling these waters means controlling huge deposits of oil and gas, rich fisheries, and vital shipping lanes.

The Chinese have been filling in reefs and shoals to create islands -- the closest is just about 13 miles away.

The Chinese military is racing to build outpo... 01:41

Satellite images are believed to show China expanding its military capability on the reef.

Mayor Bito-Onon calls it "manufacturing sovereignty."

Islands are sprouting up around him that are "bigger than what God has made in this place naturally," he chuckled.

The mayor wanted a school built to encourage families to stay here year round. The Chinese protested.

Joaly Mendosa's kids go to school there.

"Even though we are just ordinary citizens," she said. "We are fighting for ownership of this island."

The government supplies free housing, electricity and rations of food.

She was asked if she feels like a pawn in a bigger play.

"No one forced us to move here," she said. "We're just small people but the fact we live here means no one can just take over this place."

Mayor Bito-Onon says they're not soldiers. But they are soldiering on in a quiet fight to maintain control of this island.

Asked if he feels if his people are ever in danger, he said: "We just pray that it will not go to a shooting war."