HONG KONG/MANILA (Reuters) - On tiny specks in the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, Vietnamese and Filipino children skip to school each day. Not far away, China is building lighthouses and weather stations on reclaimed land. Further north, a Chinese cruise ship takes “patriotic” tourists to a separate group of contested islands.
Little noticed in the heated debate over the potential military use of China’s holdings is a growing civilian presence across the South China Sea - a trend that potentially complicates any future armed conflict while buttressing competing claims to territory.
Such moves will be limited by the small size, exposed conditions and lack of fresh water on most islands in the typhoon-tossed waterway, but beefing up civilian features is still important for rival claimants, experts said.
“It does strengthen their legal position ... because it underscores effective administration, not just military, but civilian,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies.
“That would be important if these disputes ever went to the International Court of Justice,” added Storey, referring to the United Nations’ primary judicial body that can rule on territorial disputes.
Tensions in the Spratlys, in particular over China’s island building and freedom of navigation through the contested waters, will dominate an Asian security forum in Singapore this weekend to be attended by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and military officials from Asia, including China.
China claims most of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the vital trade route. All claimants except Brunei have military fortifications in the Spratlys.
As China pushes ahead with the construction of at least one airstrip and other military facilities on reclaimed land in the Spratlys, Chinese officials are stressing the civilian nature of the work.
Ouyang Yujing, head of the Foreign Ministry’s department of boundary and ocean affairs, told state media this week that while China had “every right” to use its Spratly holdings for military purposes, the facilities would be “primarily civilian”.
He listed search and rescue, disaster prevention, scientific research and weather observation, among others. China had a groundbreaking ceremony for the building of two lighthouses on its new islands, state media said on Tuesday.
China accelerated its South China Sea civilian push in 2012, when it made a township on Woody island in the Paracel chain, north of the Spratlys, the head of a civilian administration for its claimed islands and reefs. The Paracels, entirely occupied by China since 1974, are also claimed by Vietnam.
Now, mainland Chinese tourists can visit Woody island aboard a cruise ship called the Coconut Princess that sails from China’s Hainan island.
“Setting foot onto China’s most beautiful gardens is a declaration of our national sovereignty,” says the website of the Hainan Airways International Travel Agency, which also warns travelers to wear sunscreen.
International tourists, meanwhile, can visit a small diving resort on Malaysia’s Swallow Reef in the southern reaches of the Spratlys.
Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute of South China Sea Studies, said he went to Woody island earlier this year and noticed that the population had risen to several hundred, forcing the building of proper roads and rubbish collection facilities.
In addition to an elementary school and a hospital, the families of fishermen had places to shop, Wu told Reuters.
It’s very different on the Philippine-held island of Thitu, also known as Pagasa, in the Spratlys.
Some 135 soldiers and civilians eke out an existence, sharing a communal vegetable garden and a health clinic while the children attend a basic school.
Rovelyn Jugo, 22, moved to Manila’s largest holding in the Spratlys with her husband and son a year ago.
“Everything is free, so we can save,” she told Reuters during a recent media visit to the island.
On the Vietnamese-held island of Southwest Cay, an elementary school opened this month, the third Vietnam has opened in the Spratlys in the last two years, according to state media. A health clinic on Spratly island, the biggest Vietnam occupies, is also being upgraded.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the ability of an island to sustain a civilian population and economic activity is vital to determining whether it can claim a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), international lawyers say.
Those that can’t are legally considered rocks.
Clive Schofield, an Australian legal expert, said placing civilians on a reclamation was not enough for an EEZ.
“The legal character of the feature will not change no matter how large the civilian population becomes, or what economic activities take place there,” he said.
While the legal nuances may be a long way from life on Thitu, China’s reclamations are hard to avoid.
At night, lights are visible on Subi Reef, a Chinese reclamation 20 km (13 miles) away.
“What we hear on the radio about the situation here is frightening,” said Jugo. “We are ready to leave ... In fact, our things are in plastic containers so we can take them with us.”
Additional reporting by Ho Binh Minh in HANOI; and Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Editing by Dean Yates