The flow of fentanyl, the last battlefront between the US and China in the midst of the opioid crisis

Who is responsible for the opioid Pandemic in the United States? According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the culprits are “transnational criminal corporations”, which must be combated through international police operations. But according to Chinese state media, “it is demand that fuels the fentanyl crisis in the United States,” primarily from “consumers themselves.”

Blinken gave a speech at the inauguration of the US-led Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats, in a meeting that took place virtually. China, which many US lawmakers blame for the crisis, declined the invitation to participate.

The Americans are hoping that a visit this summer by several of their representatives to China will get Beijing to do more to crack down on companies and individuals selling fentanyl precursors to international drug cartels. Precursors are the chemical elements from which this lethal opioid can be obtained. But China’s reaction so far has been one of anger at any suggestion that it bears any responsibility for the US drug problem.

While the relationship between the two countries deteriorates, the narcotics death rate continues to rise. In 2022, more than 107,000 people died from overdoses, up from 71,000 in 2019. Two-thirds of deaths last year were linked to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which the DEA, the US drug watchdog, says ― comes largely from China, via cartels in Mexico.

Blinken’s visit

Last month, US authorities detained two Chinese nationals for alleged fentanyl trafficking. The arrest of Chen Yiyi and Wang Qingzhou, who were caught in Fiji, was still up in the air when Blinken began his highly anticipated trip to Beijing less than two weeks later.

One of the priorities ahead of scheduled meetings with Chinese officials, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, was to get help from Beijing to combat the flow of fentanyl and related products into the United States. Janet Yellen, the US Treasury secretary, is also believed to have raised the issue during her visit last week.

But days after Blinken left Beijing, the US Justice Department launched criminal proceedings against Chen and Wang, along with six other Chinese nationals and four Chinese chemical manufacturers. China said the detentions were illegal and called for the immediate release of its citizens.

“It’s quite possible that China’s reaction will be angry and see it as a ploy, a betrayal of whatever they agreed to during Blinken’s trip,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on international drug policy.

Some hoped that fentanyl control would be an issue that Beijing and Washington could agree on, apart from more contentious issues like trade and technology. But in the eyes of Beijing, any avenue of cooperation is contingent on geopolitical negotiations.

Cooperation impossible in the current climate

In August 2022, after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China officially suspended any dialogue. That means Washington and Beijing can’t share information about supply chain investigations linked to criminal gangs or money laundering.

Although the precursors sold by chemical companies in China have a number of legitimate medical uses, Felbab-Brown notes that there are often obvious signs of criminality, such as packages being shipped under instructions on how to evade customs inspections in Mexico. . China has not responded to US intelligence reports or its criminal actions since 2018.

Part of the problem is that the Chinese government believes it has gone further than most in the fight against drug trafficking. In 2019, at the request of the United States, China established a list of all forms of fentanyl. It is the only major country that does this on a permanent basis. In the United States, fentanyl analogues are only controlled on a temporary basis, with a classification set to expire in December 2024.

In November 2019, a Hebei court convicted nine people of smuggling fentanyl into the United States, ending an operation that had begun two years earlier in New Orleans. Such cooperation would be impossible now, in the current climate.

“Unwanted Effects”

Since then, the cross-border flow of fentanyl and its analogues has become more complex. Rahul Gupta, director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, noted in February that China’s scheduling of fentanyl-related substances causes “undesirable effects”: “Traffickers adjusted their shipments: instead of sending fentanyl finished and illicit directly to the United States, they began to send chemical precursors to Mexico, where the illicit production of fentanyl has proliferated.

Mexico has pledged to participate in the new coalition promoted by the United States to combat the threats of synthetic drugs. But despite the fact that meetings between the US and China have increased in recent weeks, Beijing shows no sign of wanting to participate.

The day after the first coalition meeting, Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, accused the United States of slander and said the ball is in the court of the United States to “undo their false moves.” ” and restore relationships.

Washington would like the fight against drug trafficking to be above politics. Beijing regrets to disagree.

Translation by María Torrens Tillack.

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