The BBC recently sent reporter to overfly the reefs and shoals China has been building up into artifical islands in the South China Sea. They got short shrift.
Our plan was simple, if daunting. From Palawan we would fly directly to Pagasa, land and refuel. Then we would fly south-west and circle the Chinese-controlled reef called Fiery Cross, where China appears to be building a major air and naval base. We would return to Pagasa and refuel again. Finally we'd fly back to Palawan via Mischief Reef. This is another Chinese-controlled reef, very close to the Philippines, where land reclamation has been going on this year on a huge scale.
Our objective was two-fold. To get as close as possible to the new Chinese-controlled islands in order to film the construction work going on. And just as important, to see how the Chinese would react.
As our little plane bounced down the gravel runway on Pagasa my heart was beating fast, excited and nervous. Half an hour's flight south of the island I saw a yellow patch of land out of the window. On top of it was a large white blockhouse. I recognised it immediately from satellite photos.
"That's Gaven Reef!" I shouted to Jiro over the din of the engine. "Remember we sailed past it last year. They'd just started construction then."
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a loud and aggressive voice came over the radio.
"Unidentified military aircraft in west of Nanxun Reef, this is the Chinese Navy. You are threatening the security of our station! In order to prevent miscalculation leave this area immediately!"
The pilots of our far-from-military Cessna banked away to the west. But the warnings continued, over and over, in Chinese and in English, getting louder and more agitated.
The Beeb was chased all over the area before managing to get a few pics of Meiji Reef which had been turned into something closely resembling a military airfield. It would put PLA war planes eight minutes away from the Philippine coast. As they were leaving with Chinese warnings loud in their ears they picked up an exchange between the PLA forces who'd just shooed them away and the crew of an Australian Orion aircraft.
Then over the radio came a very different voice, with a different accent.
"China Navy, China Navy," the voice said. "We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights, in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - over."
The US has done several high profile freedom-of-navigation flights and sailings through the South China Sea in recent months, including one by B-52 bombers. But Australia has never publicly announced that it is doing the same - so this felt like a bit of scoop.
We heard the Australian message being repeated several times, but did not catch any response from the Chinese side.
The response, such as it was, came shortly after the story went public. A state owned Chinese newspaper, The Global Times, editorialised that the RAAF had no role to play in the dispute and "It would be shame if a plane fell from the sky".
The ABC has a nice report, which some very droll lines from the Chinese side.