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Exclusive AP access to US flight over militarized Chinese islands

Admiral John C. Aquilino, left, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), looks at videos of Chinese structures and buildings on board a US P-8A Poseidon reconaisance plane flying at the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea on Sunday March 20, 2022. A U.S. Navy plane carrying a top American military commander was threatened repeatedly by radio on Sunday to leave the airspace over Chinese-occupied island garrisons in the disputed South China Sea, but the aircraft pressed on defiantly with its reconnaissance in brief but tense standoffs witnessed by two Associated Press journalists invited onboard. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

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Chinese buildings and other structures on the man-made island at Johnson Reef in the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea, March 20, 2022. – AP Photo / Aaron Favila

Philippines chief correspondent Jim Gomez and photographer Aaron Favila, both based in Manila, were the only journalists invited aboard a U.S. Navy reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea and China’s island outposts in the region. While Favila made photos and video of the Chinese military facilities built on man-made islands, Gomez landed an exclusive interview with Adm. John C. Aquilino, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander.

The unique access came about when Asia-Pacific correspondent David Rising, relying on contacts with the U.S. military, arranged for AP be on the P-8A Poseidon aircraft that would fly the mission out of the Philippines. Rising wasn’t able to make the trip himself but pressed to get both Gomez and Favila aboard, covering the mission in all formats.

Aquilino told Gomez that China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea and has armed them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets. He added that the increasingly aggressive moves threaten all nations operating nearby.

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An airstrip built by China runs beside buildings and other structures on the man-made island at Mischief Reef in the Spratlys group of islands in the disputed South China Sea, March 20, 2022. – AP Photo / Aaron Favila

In addition to photos of Aquilino and crew operations aboard the flight, Favila made aerial images of Mischief Reef and other Chinese installations. He even recorded audio of the warning messages received from the Chinese, as well the U.S. reply to those warnings, all of which made it into AP’s video edit. And the text story with Gomez and Favila’s double byline was one of the top stories on AP News,with some 39,000 pageviews 24 hours in.

The timely coverage — as the war in Ukraine raises concern over other potential international conflicts — also highlights AP’s continued focus on one of its global news priorities for this year: China’s influence and how it wields power outside its borders.

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From left, Manila photographer Aaron Favila, U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. John C. Aquilino and Manila chief correspondent Jim Gomez pose at Clark Air Base iLuzon Island in the Philippines, after flying aboard a U.S. reconnaissance mission over contested waters of the South China Sea to observe Chinese military installations on man-made islands, March 20, 2022. – Via AP
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