The project on the Vietnam border, according to Chinese state media Xinhua,involves a 4,5-metre-high iron fence, topped with barbed wire, along the Beilun River. Built between 2012 and 2017, the $29 million projectreportedlystretches initially 12 kilometres and could be further extended: the official explanation is that it has the function to curb the smuggling of goods, drugs and people.
Although smuggling might not be the main reason behind China’s recent border reinforcement measures, illegal cross-border activity has been a major headachefor 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.
China’s more recent explanation for the wall construction described the urgent need to stop illegal border-crossers due to the COVID-19 pandemic but Vietnam has reported just 1.500 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths, compared to 98.000 cases and 4.798 deaths in China. In any case the fence does not touch the rich trade that has characterised the Vietnamese border town and border crossing of Mong Cai (also known as “Market city”).
Meanwhile, a 659-kilometre fence hasreportedly been completed in December along China’s 2.000-kilometre borderwith Myanmar, between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s northern Shan State.
That said, the border sector partially covered by the fence is first of all part of the autonomous region (Shan State) that has been for decade plagued by regional guerrillas in conflict against the military junta of the central government. Moreover the sector of Kokang has been for many years a “grey zone”, where gambling, prostitution and drug smuggling are main activities.
As it has happened with other walls across the globe, these barriers are generally a bonus for organised criminal groups because they increase normal transaction costs and hence criminal gains.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.