Just four years ago, a joint US and Chinese effort to stem the flow of fentanyl produced in China from reaching the US appeared to be taking off. Beijing has introduced a sweeping new law banning the synthetic opioid, prompting the Trump administration to praise China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, for a “wonderful humanitarian gesture”.
Soon, Chinese and American law enforcement agents joined forces to investigate and prosecute fentanyl traffickers in China.
But today, cooperation between the two countries on fentanyl is at a standstill. Mutual efforts to crack down on a narcotic responsible for tens of thousands of drug overdoses in the United States each year have been hampered by broader geopolitical tensions over trade, human rights, Russia and Taiwan. The failure to cooperate on a fentanyl ban is emblematic of the myriad ways the bilateral relationship has foundered.
In a bid to get other countries to pressure China to do more to stem the flow of so-called precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to lead Friday’s first virtual meeting of a global coalition of nations aimed at ending the threat of dangerous synthetic drugs.
China has been invited to participate and join the coalition of about 84 countries involved in the effort, but has not given any indication that it plans to participate, said Todd D. Robinson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement. Instead, the government of Mexico, another nation critical in the supply chain of fentanyl and other deadly opioids, has committed to participating.
“The PRC needs to do more as a global partner to disrupt illegal synthetic drug chains,” Mr Robinson said at a briefing on Thursday, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The issue is also expected to be raised in meetings this week in Beijing between Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Chinese officials. This year, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on Chinese and Mexican companies suspected of producing fentanyl pills, part of a broader effort by the US government to crack down on the source of the deadly crisis.
Ms. Yellen’s visit follows Mr. Blinken’s trip to Beijing last month, during which he called on China to resume cooperation with the United States on drug control. Beijing froze communication with Washington on the issue after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August.
During Blinken’s visit, the secretary suggested that the two countries could “explore establishing a working group or a joint effort” to combat fentanyl trafficking. But any prospect of cooperation vanished just days later when US federal prosecutors announced the indictment of four Chinese companies accused of smuggling chemicals used by Mexican drug cartels to produce vast quantities of fentanyl sold in the US.
Since then, China has attacked the United States over the drug problem, accusing it of shifting the blame for its own social problems to Beijing and denying its own failures in fighting the fentanyl epidemic.
“The United States must face its own problems, and must not avoid diseases,” said a recent commentary in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. “Attacking and slandering China will not cure the chronic problem of drug addiction in the United States, but will only delay the problem of drug control in the United States into a larger social crisis.”
China speaks from experience when it comes to drugs, it often says. The country was the victim of Britain’s exploitative opium trade during the 19th century.
“Because of the painful memory of the Opium War, China is the country in the world that hates drugs the most,” said an editorial last month in the Global Times, a party newspaper.
Fentanyl has almost no domestic market in China, and analysts say that has given Beijing less incentive to regulate its precursor chemicals, which also have a range of legal uses in the medical industry.
Instead, Beijing most likely views the fentanyl crisis as something to rein in Washington, at a time when it has become frustrated by US actions it sees as containing China. These include limiting Chinese access to advanced semiconductor technology and strengthening security ties between the United States and China’s neighbors such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Analysts say Beijing will want something of value in exchange for agreeing to help the Biden administration on fentanyl.
Some Chinese analysts blame US domestic politics for driving the Biden administration’s increasing pressure on China over fentanyl.
“Drug policies in the United States have been weak, and the presidential election year is coming,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “That gives the Republican Party an opportunity to attack the Democrats and the Biden administration. That’s why we see the United States promoting this issue.”
China banned all variants of fentanyl in 2019, fulfilling a promise from Mr Xi to President Trump. As a result, direct exports of fentanyl-related chemicals to the United States fell.
But experts say Chinese enforcement has weakened further after it became clear to Beijing that the Trump administration would not raise trade tariffs it imposed on China a year earlier. That has led to an increase in precursor chemicals being shipped to Mexico, where drug cartels manufacture and ship much of the fentanyl that ends up in the United States.
Analysts say the fentanyl dispute highlights fundamental differences in how Washington and Beijing approach their rivalry. The Biden administration believes it can compete with China on strategic issues such as security and technology, while also cooperating on issues of mutual interest such as climate change and drug control.
“China said ‘No, we’re not interested in that proposal. If you want to cooperate on this issue, you have to cooperate on the strategic relationship,'” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on global policy on She urged Washington to coordinate with other countries to pressure China and consider more punitive tools such as sanctions to gain China’s cooperation on the drug trade.
Mr Wu, the China analyst, said Washington’s approach smacks of arrogance towards China as the Biden administration tries to dictate the terms of engagement.
“The United States believes that when it wants to cooperate with China, China must cooperate,” Mr. Wu said. “When it wants to suppress China in the name of competition, it can suppress China without any concern.”
“I’m sorry, but this is not possible,” he added.
Analysts say the fentanyl issue is one area where Beijing has leverage to extract concessions from Washington in other areas.
“The Chinese have long seen cooperation with the United States not as a good in itself, but as a source of leverage, and today, China’s need for leverage is great and growing,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was senior Asia director for the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
Alan Rappeport contributed reporting from Beijing.