Flying close to Beijing’s new South China Sea islands

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Use the slider to see construction at Subi Reef September 2015July 2012
Images: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe
Last year the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes travelled across the South China Sea in a fishing boat and became the first journalist to observe close-up how China is constructing new islands on coral reefs. A few days ago he returned to the area in a small aircraft – provoking a furious and threatening response from the Chinese Navy.
The scattered atolls, reefs and sand bars known as the Spratly Islands are a very difficult place to get to. Some are controlled by Vietnam, others by the Philippines, one by Taiwan, and then of course there are those controlled by China.
Don’t expect an invitation from Beijing. Believe me, I’ve tried. Only the Philippines will let you visit a tiny 400m-long scrap of land called Pagasa. It’s just about big enough to land a small aircraft on.

After months of planning and negotiation, I was sitting in a hotel room in Manila packed and ready to go when the phone rang. It was my colleague Chika.
“Our permission to land on Pagasa has been revoked!” she announced.
My heart sank. What had happened? Had the Philippine government been threatened? China’s President Xi Jinping was about to arrive in town. Perhaps Manila didn’t want a scene?
In fact it was worse. Somehow Beijing had found out what we were up to.
Next came a call from my editor in London.

Read more: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35031313

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