President Biden will pressure Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday to crack down on Chinese companies that help produce fentanyl, a powerful drug that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
An agreement to curb China’s illicit exports of fentanyl – and particularly chemicals that can be combined to make the drug – could be one of the most important achievements for the United States from the meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi, which is taking place now. as leaders of Pacific nations gather for an international conference in San Francisco.
China is home to a thriving chemical industry that produces compounds used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, perfumes, textile dyes and fertilizers. Some of these same compounds can also be combined to create fentanyl, an opioid that can be 100 times more potent than morphine.
U.S. officials say this vast chemical industry plays a key role in the U.S. fentanyl crisis by supplying much of the materials used in illegal drug labs, including in Mexico, which is now the largest exporter of fentanyl to the states. -United.
The Chinese government denies that its country plays such a crucial role and instead accuses the United States of maintaining a culture of drug use.
“Over-marketing by pharmaceutical companies, over-prescribing by doctors, ineffective government enforcement, and the negative implications of marijuana legalization are among the factors driving an ever-growing narcotics market,” he said. China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last year. .
U.S. authorities say they have stopped more fentanyl from entering the United States in the past two years than in the previous five years combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids may have caused more than 77,000 overdose deaths in the United States between May 2022 and April 2023. The problem of fentanyl overdoses is particularly acute in San Francisco , where Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi meet.
Ian Johnson, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said getting China to agree to do something about fentanyl would resonate more with the average American than typical “deliverables” from international meetings .
“For Biden, it would be nice to have to show the heart of the United States that relations with China are more than just an esoteric issue, but can actually bring something to ordinary people,” Mr. Johnson during a press briefing. the council last week. Republicans have made fentanyl-related deaths a central part of their campaign against Mr. Biden and Democrats in the 2024 election.
However, given the difficulties of controlling an illicit industry, it is unclear to what extent a deal would curb the flow of fentanyl to the United States.
Roselyn Hsueh, an associate professor of political science at Temple University, said an agreement between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi could lead China’s central government to provide more oversight and invest more resources in inspection and Control. But she added that Beijing has faced difficulties in the past in combating fentanyl and its chemical precursors.
Prior to 2019, China was the primary source of fentanyl entering the United States, usually through the mail or other commercial courier services. As part of trade negotiations with President Donald J. Trump, the Chinese government agreed in 2019 to ban the production, sale and export of all fentanyl-related drugs except through special licenses.
But that has led Chinese companies to shift their focus to Mexico and make India a new production site, Ms. Hsueh said. The main source of U.S. fentanyl was Mexican criminal organizations, which used Chinese-made components and Chinese money laundering services.
Today, online sales that mask the identities of sellers and buyers make enforcement even more difficult. Regulation and enforcement of fentanyl and precursor chemicals remains “fragmented and decentralized” among Chinese local governments, industry associations and companies with vested interests in the chemical trade, Ms. Hsueh said.
U.S. officials have said the problem is made worse because many of the ingredients used in making fentanyl are legal chemicals that can be used for legitimate purposes in other industries. The United States has sanctioned dozens of people in China and Hong Kong for their roles in fentanyl trafficking. In September, Mr Biden added China to the US list of the world’s top drug-producing countries, a move the Chinese government denounced as “malicious smear”.
Last month, the U.S. Customs Department released an updated strategy to combat fentanyl and synthetic drugs, including increased use of data and counterintelligence operations to track drug manufacturing and distribution networks and Target suspicious locations and recipients that demonstrate patterns of illicit activity.
“In my 30 years as a customs agent, trafficking illicit synthetic drugs like fentanyl is one of the most difficult and intimidating challenges I have ever seen,” said Troy Miller, Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
U.S. officials say China’s dominance as a chemical producer makes cooperation from Beijing essential for law enforcement. Administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have raised the issue with senior Chinese officials during recent trips to China.
When six lawmakers, including Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer, had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Xi during a visit to China last month, the main question they raised was not not trade or military coordination or climate change, but the harm it could cause. fentanyl had caused in their country of origin.
“Everyone told stories, personal stories about how, you know, our friends, our family, died from fentanyl, and how it was a really big problem, and I think you can say it impacted him, how deeply touched we were. I felt it,” said Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Fentanyl precursors from China have become a bipartisan issue in Congress, and the six senators who spoke with Mr. Xi included three Democrats and three Republicans.
“China must enforce laws that prevent the export of fentanyl precursors to international drug markets,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana.
Despite the scale of the problem, there is hope that greater coordination between the United States and China could improve the situation. Cooperation between the countries to prevent shipments of chemical precursors came to a halt several years ago after the United States sanctioned a Chinese government entity for its alleged involvement in human rights abuses in the region. westernmost part of China, Xinjiang.
This sanctioned entity was located at the same address in Beijing as China’s National Narcotics Laboratory, which plays a key role in China’s law enforcement efforts on drug-related chemicals.
Chinese officials are deeply unhappy with U.S. sanctions against their institutions, and U.S. officials have taken the position that due to the potential for confusion between the two institutes at the same address, neither institute can work with the United States. .
China then broadened its stance in August 2022 by ending all anti-drug coordination with the United States, as part of a series of measures taken in response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Beijing claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy, as part of its territory.
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting from Washington.