During a recent visit to San Francisco, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top aides announced that China had taken action against 25 Chinese companies involved in supplying chemicals used in the illegal fentanyl trade. This move was seen as a positive step towards counternarcotics cooperation between China and the United States.
After a meeting between President Biden and Xi, it was further announced that China had agreed to resume cooperation on counternarcotics efforts and crack down on the flow of chemicals to fentanyl labs overseas.
While this agreement is being hailed as a win for Biden’s reelection campaign and his efforts to tackle the nation’s drug crisis, experts remain skeptical about its long-lasting impact on the global supply chain for illicit drugs.
They question China’s ability and willingness to root out players in its vast chemical industry who use encrypted communications and cryptocurrency to facilitate the trade.
Some experts also worry that other synthetic drugs could replace fentanyl, or that the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl will simply shift to other countries, such as India.
Jonathan P. Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the criminal drug trade, expressed doubts about the agreement, stating that there are other countries capable of manufacturing these chemicals. Despite the Biden administration’s focus on combating the drug crisis, the number of deaths related to illicit drugs continues to rise, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl being a significant contributor.
The issue of China’s role in the fentanyl trade has become a political point of contention for both Democrats and Republicans. While tensions between the United States and China continue to rise, China’s cooperation in counternarcotics efforts is seen as a way to stabilize the relationship between the two countries.
However, analysts caution that China’s cooperation may wane if it does not see sufficient political benefit from it, and the United States will have no easy way of measuring China’s efforts.
China’s chemical and drug industries are complex and fragmented, making it difficult for regulators to detect the sale of precursor chemicals. The involvement of small-time brokers and the use of encrypted communication tools also complicate law enforcement efforts.
Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, emphasized the need for China to enforce regulations to ensure that shipments from China are going to legitimate customers.
While efforts to clamp down on precursor chemicals from China may disrupt the fentanyl trade, there are concerns that it could lead to the rise of other synthetic narcotics. The illicit drug market has already seen drugs like xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, being mixed with fentanyl for a more potent effect.
The Treasury Department has sanctioned companies involved in the sale of xylazine and other precursors used to make drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Experts warn that efforts to control precursor chemicals in the past have resulted in unintended consequences. For example, when pseudoephedrine was cracked down on to curb domestic methamphetamine production, Mexican cartels simply shifted their synthesis process to create a more potent product.
This highlights the constant cat-and-mouse game between drug control strategies and the ever-shifting tactics of illicit drug manufacturers. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether China’s efforts will have a lasting impact on the fentanyl trade and the broader drug crisis.