New Fences on the China-Myanmar Border: Separation or Containment?

China has reportedly started erecting fences along its border with Myanmar. The move could be seen as a Chinese attempt to manage the Covid-19 pandemic in Myanmar, but some observers have alluded other motives to Beijing.

Myanmar and Chinese officials inspect the disputed fence across the boundary post
Myanmar and Chinese officials inspect the disputed fence across the boundary post. (Photo: Kokang311, Facebook)

Andrew Ong

30 November 2020

In late November, the Irrawaddy reported that the Chinese state was constructing razor wire fencing along its border with Myanmar, triggering complaints from the Myanmar military. The Myanmar side was not notified of the construction along the Kokang Region (in Shan State) border with Yunnan Province, and the local Myanmar military unit sent a letter of objection to the Chinese authorities. The Irrawaddy quoted a Shan parliamentarian saying that China’s unilateral decision to erect the three-coil razor wire fencing without advising the Myanmar government beforehand was further evidence of its bullying behaviour.

It appears that construction started more than a month before, following the detection in September of two Covid-19 cases in Ruili, the main international crossing point between Myanmar and China, and some two hundred kilometres from Kokang along the border. The two cases were reportedly illegal migrants from Myanmar; it led to the lockdown and mass testing of more than 200,000 inhabitants in Ruili. Ruili borders the Myanmar town of Muse in Northern Shan State.

The international boundary separating Myanmar’s Shan State and China’s Yunnan Province is widely seen as porous, marked by rivers in some areas, but crossable on foot in most other places. It has a long history of regional trade, with muleteers and caravans travelling southwards from the Tibetan plateau through Sichuan and Yunnan, towards the fertile lowlands of mainland Southeast Asia. Demarcated only in 1960 under a Sino-Myanmar boundary agreement, the 2,220 km long border was first negotiated between the British and Qing governments in the 1890s, and again in the 1930s. Currently, Muse-Ruili is the only international crossing point, but several other provincial and county-level crossing points are open for Chinese and Myanmar citizens along the border. Ethnic kin and relatives from villages on both sides have easier access, though travel permissions fluctuate.

This potential securitisation of the China-Myanmar border marks a new milestone in Sino-Myanmar relations. More than just a physical barrier, the fencing project will also create new nodes of surveillance along the border.

The China-Myanmar border was closed in early February following the Covid-19 outbreak in China. Myanmar workers stranded in China, legal and illegal, struggled to return home. As Covid-19 cases increase across Myanmar, limiting illegal travel across the Yunnan border is an obvious priority for the Chinese government. The fences suggest a lack of trust in Myanmar’s ability to keep the pandemic under control, to monitor and test, and to keep populations disciplined and under appropriate lockdown. Reports suggest that fencing is being put up not only along the Kokang Region of Shan State, but many other border areas, including the neighbouring Wa Region, now completely closed off to visitors.

The fencing will affect movements not just of people but also of commodities. This is a border which sees the crossing of an entire gamut of products. This includes jade and gemstones, timber, tin and copper ore, rare wildlife products, narcotics and their precursor chemicals, and reportedly weapons. The “small roads” and illicit river crossings are essential to unofficial travel and avoiding taxation and customs duties. The Chinese border security apparatus quietly permits most illicit crossings, allowing leeway for inhabitants to earn their own keep. At many crossings near border towns, especially those controlled by ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, an entire industry of porters and boatmen make a living assisting border flows. The China-Myanmar border benefits from its porosity, coupled with flexibility and discretion of the Chinese state to allow and block flows.

This potential securitisation of the China-Myanmar border marks a new milestone in Sino-Myanmar relations. More than just a physical barrier, the fencing project will also create new nodes of surveillance along the border. The Chinese state will potentially deploy more new surveillance technologies in remote areas. They will test the effectiveness and durability of these systems. The photo from the Irrawaddy shows mounted cameras in the background of the razor wire fence, but it is not clear what types of cameras and imaging systems they are. Combined with the rollout of facial recognition technologies across China, border surveillance can become a potent tool. To the Chinese, securitisation is a public health good, a show of technological reach by the Chinese state, a symbolic safeguarding of sovereignty. It also entails a heavy infrastructural investment.

Covid-19 has given an ideal rationale for securitising states across the globe. Even after the pandemic is controlled, states can deploy the physical barriers and surveillance infrastructure on illegal migration, narcotics trafficking, smuggling, and other potentially illicit flows that bridge the China-Myanmar borderlands. It will help China to better manage refugee crises like the Kokang conflicts of 2009 and 2015, which caused rapid displacement of tens of thousands and were a potential hotbed for disease vectors.

But fence construction has another subtler effect. The Great Wall of China, as historians have suggested, did not only keep out the “barbarians”, but also kept people and labour in. Criminals and other populations escaping the Chinese state have often taken refuge in armed group-controlled areas on the Myanmar peripheries; in response, Chinese authorities have often made extra-territorial requests for arrests. One wonders if the fence and its potential surveillance apparatus might serve a dual purpose as a tool of containment. If the fence is extended and made permanent, this “hardening” of the border and the expanding reach of surveillance technologies will surely redefine China-Myanmar cross-border trade, kinship, and perceptions of mobility.

Dr Andrew Ong is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/192

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.