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In Tiny Archipelago, Tensions Over the Future of Telecom

BY Julia Wetherell | Tuesday, February 12 2013

The Spratly Islands (Wikimedia Commons).

Tiny, disputed Pacific archipelagos have been in the news recently, with Japan bolstering online security against Chinese hacks related to the Japanese claim on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  Now another island chain is caught in a tug-of-war between several East Asian countries – and this time, the weapons of choice are mobile networks

The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 700 reefs, atolls, and other small landforms in the South China Sea, a number of which are occupied or claimed by various countries, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.  Vietnam has provided traditional wireless service on the islands since 2006; in 2011, after a nearly a year of building up the necessary infrastructure, China implemented a similar wireless network for its military personnel, as well as for fisherman and merchant vessels. 

In early January, when China began to roll out 3G coverage on its Spratly network, tensions mounted over the administrative future of the islands.  The new network will make it possible for Chinese citizens to connect with the telecom system on the mainland, but this leaves other countries with interests in the islands in the dark.

Vietnam, where anti-China protests broke out in 2011 after Chinese patrol boats disrupted a Vietnamese petroleum survey in the Spratlys, passed new legislation this summer that claims the islands under Vietnamese maritime law. Now, China’s greater connectivity to the isolated territory could effectively overrule such declarations.  

Yet other countries may catch up soon; early this month Taiwan announced its own mobile telecom system for the islands.

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