China calls in mobile operators to support claim to disputed islands

China is reinforcing its claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea by telling the country’s three operators to build 4G networks.

The islands – variously claimed by China as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan – are commonly known as Spratly or Paracel but China calls them the Xisha and Nansha islands and reefs.

“To deliver a 4G signal in the South China Sea also shows China has sovereign rights to the area,” said Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, speaking to the Chinese-controlled Global Times.

The area is an important shipping channel but a more likely reason for the international rivalry is that it has huge oil and gas reserves. In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against China’s claims to the territory.

There is increasing evidence that China is militarising some of the islands in order to build its claim – and now the navy of the People’s Liberation Army has signed framework agreements with the Hainan branches of China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom to upgrade communications on the islands, said ECNS, a news service associated with Global Times.

The navy’s South China Sea Fleet said that, once completed in May, the project will bring 4G+ service to the islands and reefs. At the moment the area relies on satellites. The news service said that the wet climate and typhoons, plus long-distance transmission issues and local topography, meant that building a 4G+ network would be complex.

“Telecommunication companies faced limitations trying to install facilities in the Xisha and Nansha islands, but now by cooperating with the navy, the companies can take advantage of the expertise and resources of the military,” said Chen. “Once the upgrade is finished, the telecommunication network will become a regional public service that will massively benefit people who work and live in the area.”

The GSMA’s coverage maps do not appear to show that any operators provide service on the largely uninhabited islands.