To address the fentanyl epidemic, greater US-China collaboration will be required.

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in China on Wednesday for a three-day visit, managing Washington’s differences with Beijing on issues ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to the wars in Gaza and Ukraine is said to be high on his agenda.
He is also expected to discuss some of the issues agreed between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden when they met in November – the most urgent of which is the battle against fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and claimed more than 100,000 lives in the US in the 12 months before September last year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

The opioid crisis will also be a key issue in this year’s presidential election. According to a poll by Bloomberg and Morning Consult, eight in 10 swing-state voters said that fentanyl misuse has become a “very important” or “somewhat important” issue when deciding who to vote for, more than those who cite issues such as abortion, labour relations or the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Democrats and Republicans have different views about how to tackle the crisis, with the former approaching the problems from a public health perspective and seeking more funding to treat high-risk groups and provide naloxone, a medicine that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

The Republicans prefer to impose border control to stop the influx of drugs from Mexico, but both parties agree on the importance of targeting the foreign sources of fentanyl.

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Fentanyl has been implicated in the deaths of 112,000 Americans annually. Photo: AP
It is an open secret that most precursor chemicals – many of them also the basic components of legal medicines – are smuggled from China to the Mexican cartels, which then use these to make opioids.

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From Beijing’s point of view, fentanyl is an “American problem” because the US has failed to suppress the demand for fentanyl but it did agree to help crackdown on these precursor chemicals following a request from Donald Trump in 2017.

It has listed all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances since then and in 2019, it banned the unregulated manufacturing, distribution and exports of fentanyl-related substances.

Xi is also reported to have told Biden in November that Beijing has clamped down on 25 companies supplying chemicals for the illicit fentanyl trade.

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However, it views its actions more as a favour to the US.

While commenting on the upcoming visit by Blinken, a Chinese foreign ministry official told Xinhua on Tuesday: “Fentanyl is not a Chinese problem and it is not a problem caused by China … But we are willing to help the American people.

“There is big progress in the China-US cooperation in counternarcotics, China has made huge efforts and the US should also address China’s concerns in the same way.”

Because of the gap in understanding the problem, the best way to move forward is create a friendly environment for both sides to cooperate.

One challenge is the ever evolving list of chemicals that can be used as precursors of opioid and other synthetic drugs. Both sides need to work closely to share information on the flow of funds and shipments.

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Hu Binchen was among two Chinese officials who jointly launched the US-China Counternarcotics Working Group during a visit by Jen Daskal to Beijing in January. Photo: Criminal Investigation Police University of China
Such cooperation is extremely important as many smugglers are just small companies which use fake labels to ship the components.

There was a successful case in 2019 when a joint operation between China and the US busted a syndicate and eventually put nine smugglers behind bars. However, the seizures dropped after US and China relations soured in the past few years and bilateral exchanges suffered.

While the momentum has resumed in recent months, cooperation, not accusations, is needed to move forward. After all, it is lives that matter, not rhetoric.






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