In a move which could lead to conflicts, China has decided to reinforce border walls with its South-East Asian neighbours – Vietnam and Myanmar.
“It looks like a national program,” South-East Asia expert and emeritus professor Carl Thayer of UNSW Canberra said.
According to Chinese state media Xinhua, the project in Vietnam involves a 4.5-metre-high iron fence, topped with barbed wire, along the Beilun River. Built between 2012 and 2017, the $29 million project reportedly stretches 12 kilometres, and is there to curb the smuggling of goods, drugs and people.
Meanwhile, media reports suggest that a 659-kilometre-long fence has been completed along China’s 2,000-kilometre border with Myanmar in December, in between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s northern Shan State.
While Global Times has cited China’s need to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent smuggling, in some cases the walls are designed not just to keep the virus out, but to keep people in.
According to Professor Thayer, although smuggling might not be the main reason behind China’s recent border reinforcement measures, illegal cross-border activity has been a major headache for both China and Vietnam since 1979, when the war between the two countries ceased.
“The persistent criminal network of smugglers on both sides, with the help of local officials and security forces, led to a series of issues, including the illicit trafficking of Vietnamese women to China,” Professor Thayer said.
China’s more recent explanation for the wall construction described the urgent need to stop illegal border-crossers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vietnam has reported just 1,500 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths, compared to 98,000 cases and 4,798 deaths in China.
But Myanmar has reported more than 130,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost 3,000 deaths, and an outbreak in migrant workers from Myanmar last month has led to a second wave of the virus in neighbouring Thailand.
In video clips posted by a Chinese YouTuber A’Mu, part of the border wall in Wanding, China’s border town with Myanmar, was seen being upgraded, including security cameras installed every couple of metres.
Apart from the need to control the spread of COVID-19, experts say China’s wall-building on the Vietnamese border reveals increasing economic anxiety, as the flow of migration has become two-way instead of one.
Professor Tran Ly of Deakin University, who studies international graduate employability, said the reason Chinese migrant workers were moving to Vietnam is multi-faceted.
“[They are] attracted by not only job prospects but also life opportunities associated with fast economic growth, political stability and effective management of COVID-19 by Vietnam, one of their closest neighbouring countries,” she said.
“[Vietnam] has created a favourable and secure market condition for foreign investment… and attracted manufacturing companies originally based in China to relocate to Vietnam,” she added.
Illegal immigration is a problem for both countries. In December last year, Vietnam repatriated at least 29 illegal migrants from China, according to Vietnamese local media.
More than 100 Vietnamese people, who had gone to work in China illegally, were also found to have crossed back into Vietnam illegally in a four-day period in September last year.
Apart from Vietnam’s favourable investment environment, Professor Ly also pointed out that geopolitical factors have impacted the relocation and change in the employment market.
While some skilled workers have found a legal way to migrate, Professor Ly said many workers have crossed the border illegally. As a result, they face significant barriers in finding jobs after arriving in Vietnam, she said.