What Does China's New Land Borders Law Mean for Its Neighbors?

Auxiliary police and police officers in protective suits patrol the snow-covered border region in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, October 7, 2021.

China has a new tool to wield during any future flareups along its borders with foreign entities, whether those be the Indian government, Afghan refugees or Myanmar rebel groups.

Announced on October 23, the new Land Borders Law authorizes the use of weapons to halt "illegal" border crossings and lists reasons for Chinese authorities to ban those crossings.

Scholars say the law appears to be aimed at legitimizing military and armed police actions along 22,117 kilometers of largely remote, rugged borders while warning other states against testing China's resolve in any sovereignty spats.

China has enforced similar laws in the past, largely to cast doubt on the legality of any activities by other countries that challenge Chinese sovereignty, said Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Dean Cheng in a May 2021 study. Such laws cover Taiwan, Hong Kong and countries bounded by the South China Sea.

"Beijing is now employing the same lawfare approach it successfully employed in the South China Sea to provide legal cover for its territorial expansion," said Mohan Malik, author of the 2011 book "China and India: Great Power Rivals." "It shows that China's domestic laws now override bilateral agreements, established norms and international law."

Multiple threats, multiple laws

China, which has rankled several neighbors with its aggressive maritime claims, has reason to be concerned about several of its land borders.

Beijing officials are closely watching Myanmar for any spillover of fighting between ethnic minority rebel groups and the Southeast Asian state's military government.

Scholars say the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August poses another concern for China, which worries about an influx of refugees or Islamic extremists across the two countries' short, mountainous boundary.

Beijing's health officials meanwhile are watching all borders — which touch on a total of 14 countries — for anyone who could be carrying the virus causing COVID-19.

China also disputes two tracts of land with India, prompting both sides to send troops in 2017 and 2020.

Less recently, China fought a border war with Vietnam in the 1970s and had skirmishes with the former Soviet Union in 1969.

Other new Chinese legislation includes a law passed early this year that formalizes Beijing's use of the coast guard to defend its disputed claims in the South China Sea, and the Hong Kong Security Law of 2020 that bans subversion in the former British colony.

The Anti-Secession Law of 2005 drew attention to Beijing's insistence that self-ruled Taiwan should fall under the Chinese flag.

Afghanistan, India, Myanmar

The new border law could foreshadow paramilitary action as needed against other countries, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

"I think that China may not use military force, but they could use some kind of force that has a lot of power, like ... what they are doing in the South China Sea — the paramilitary or the coast guard — … [which is] fully equipped with weapons," Nguyen said. China is building up tiny tropical islets in the sea disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is using the Land Borders Law particularly as "leverage" against India, said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. India and China are engaged in a 17-month-old border standoff that has led to deadly clashes high in the Himalayas.

"The law gives the stamp of approval to China's assertive and expansionist actions in recent years along its land borders, especially in the Himalayas," Chellaney said. "These actions follow in the footsteps of China's efforts to redraw its maritime frontiers in the South and East China seas."

The threat of Afghanis fleeing into the Xinjiang region, a mainly Muslim area where China has tried to throttle ethnic Uyghur dissent for four years, plus the specter of ethnic minority rebels in Myanmar pushing north into China as spillover from the post-February coup, make China especially nervous, scholars say.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, points to Afghanistan and Myanmar as the top border threats, though not the only ones.

"The new security law is ... designed to safeguard and secure China's borders in a more hostile security setting," Pongsudhirak said. "This is a time of unprecedented, I think, insecurity for China."

Along the Chinese border with Laos, the professor added, China hopes to "consolidate" Chinese influence ahead of a railway line opening in December.

Drones, floating objects and the PLA

Borders can be shut due to disasters or "security" threats, the text of the new border legislation says. Military personnel will answer any "illegal border crossings" by foreign troops, it says, while armed police agencies may handle other crossings.

"No organization or individual may engage in activities that endanger national security or affect China's friendly relations with neighboring countries by means of sound, light, display of markers, throwing or passing objects, placing floating objects, etc., near land borders," the legislation says.

But the law spells out, too, that China's government "adheres to the principles of equality, mutual trust, and friendly consultation, and handles land borders and related matters with land neighbors through negotiations, and properly resolves disputes and border issues left over from history."

Most of China's Land Borders Law specifies which government agencies, including the People's Liberation Army, should handle which aspects of border work.

That language also may reflect "bureaucratic and inter-agency conflicts" within the Chinese government, Pongsudhirak said.

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