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China is helping the US deal with its massive fentanyl problem — sort of

Matthew Loh   

China is helping the US deal with its massive fentanyl problem — sort of
  • China said on Wednesday that it's willing to help the US crack down on fentanyl.
  • The US says China is a main source of materials for fentanyl that later ends up in America.

President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed on Wednesday to crack down on fentanyl production, a move the US has championed as a key step toward subduing its opiate epidemic.

The deal, which both leaders settled at the Asian-Pacific Economic Committee summit in San Francisco, would see Beijing assist Washington by regulating fentanyl precursors in China.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has warned in recent years that China is a primary source for key ingredients in fentanyl. Those ingredients are shipped to places where the drug is created for illegal consumption in the US, per the DEA.

But few details were announced on Wednesday, and the deal is more of a positive sign in diplomacy and less of a concrete hope that Americans can start seeing fentanyl vanish from city streets, experts on US-China relations told Business Insider.

"If success is defined by the disappearance of illicit fentanyl and related opioids in US society, then quite probably, any such deal with any country is likely to be judged as ineffective," said Zha Daojiong, a professor of international political economy at Peking University.

China's role in a massive fentanyl problem

Biden and Xi both face a behemoth challenge: a highly lucrative international drug trade that often teeters on the edge of what's legal and illegal.

Many of the precursors to fentanyl, originally created as a painkiller, are legal to produce and export in China, and it remains to be seen how Beijing will crack down on the local pharma market.

It's an industry too vast and fragmented for Chinese authorities to easily identify and control chemicals that can be turned into fentanyl, said Liu Zongyuan, the Maurice R. Greenberg fellow for China studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Even if Beijing were to impose the right limits on the right parties, cartels can start looking elsewhere for materials, Liu said.

India, for example, has been designated by the DEA as a growing source of fentanyl precursors, with at least one documented case of an Indian national working with a cartel to produce fentanyl.

"Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and makes 20 times the profit of heroin," Liu said. "Low cost, high profit. There are just way too many profiting incentives for people to engage in these illicit activities."

Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College, said the Biden-Xi agreement in its current form will have a "marginal at best effect" on fentanyl in the US.

"Focusing on China as the source of the problem has been because it's such an easy country to criticize," Ross said. "In reality, China is only one player in the fentanyl problem."

"The US has to solve its social problems," Ross added. "If demand in America is there, there will be an international fentanyl supply, whether it's from Mexico, whether it's from China."

So why bother?

The deal at least signals an area on which Beijing and Washington can shake hands.

"The fact that Biden and Xi put their names, time, and effort behind the cause is a welcome head start," said Eric Richardson, a law lecturer at UC Berkeley and the founder of consultancy INHR, which trains diplomats to work in the United Nations.

For China, the fentanyl agreement — alongside other deals struck on Wednesday, like the reopening of a military hotline — gives the impression that Beijing is open to playing ball, Ross said.

"They are trying to signal to Europe and other countries that they are willing to cooperate," Ross said.

For the Biden administration, the fentanyl deal has been an issue repeatedly pushed by US officials, Liu said.

"This is something that's been critical for President Biden in the coming election," Liu said. "And it's also something that's not a high-cost item issue for President Xi Jinping or China to agree on."

One facet of the deal, Bloomberg and Reuters reported, involves the US to lifting sanctions on the Forensic Public Security Institute, a Chinese government agency that Washington has accused of being involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

In the end, China also stands to gain from the agreement by learning from America's counter-narcotics branches, so it may guard against a potential fentanyl crisis of its own, Liu said.

Zha, from Peking University, agreed. "The US has a lot of technical expertise in source-tracing a harmful substance, including that to a precursor in a foreign country," he said. "China is on the receiving end of illicitly trade substances that harm its population as well."

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