PLA Contracts Leading Chinese SOEs to Upgrade the Communications Systems of Illegally-Constructed Islands in South China Sea

At the start of February, a number of Chinese publications reported that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy contracted China Mobile, China United Network Communications (China Unicom), and China Telecommunications Corporation (China Telecom) to upgrade civilian communications systems in the South China Sea.  Specifically, the three companies will work to comprehensively enhance systems in the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands to bring 4G services to their reefs, including the Woody Islands, Fiery Cross Reef, and Mischief Reef.

The infrastructure contracts are being framed as necessary upgrades for China ability to deliver better communications services to civilians and military personnel living on the island, but some Chinese observers have acknowledged additional benefits.  Quoted in the Global Times, Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, said that “to deliver a 4G signal in the South China Sea also shows China has sovereign rights to the area.”

Beyond the political implications, the services have practical effect on daily operations, namely improving regular communications, signals intelligence, emergency response, and location services.  The networks are expected to be in place by May 2018, a timeline that demonstrates the importance of the project to Beijing.