China-US Fentanyl Agreement Restarts Stalled Cooperative Fight Against Deadly Drug

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed earlier this week that Beijing will crack down on companies in China that produce precursor chemicals for fentanyl, an agreement that Biden said would “save lives.”

In exchange, the Biden administration agreed to lift sanctions on China’s Physical Evidence Identification Center of the Ministry of Public Security and the National Drug Laboratory. In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce sanctioned the lab for allegedly participating in human rights violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

China, which is the source of most fentanyl precursors used in the U.S., argued that U.S. export controls have “severely affected” China’s inspection and testing of fentanyl-related substances and impaired its “goodwill to help the U.S. in drug control,” according to the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in the United States.

Although a cooperative effort to curb the supply of fentanyl brought some results over the years, enthusiasm dampened as tensions grew between China and the U.S. On Aug. 5, 2022 — after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, a self-governing island Beijing considers its own — China officially announced the suspension of anti-drug cooperation with the U.S.

Here is some background to the Biden-Xi deal.

What is fentanyl?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It is a prescription drug in the United States used for treating severe pain.

Illegally manufactured fentanyl “is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, which makes drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous,” according to the CDC.

Fentanyl sold on the black market is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine to increase a user’s sense of euphoria, according to the CDC.

Why does the United States care about the fentanyl issue?

Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death among Americans ages 18 to 49, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

What does the fentanyl problem in the United States have to do with China?

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service: “Prior to 2019, China was the primary source of U.S.-bound illicit fentanyl, fentanyl-related substances, and production equipment.” It said Chinese traffickers supplied fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances to the U.S. via international mail and express consignment operations.

Xi promised then-U.S. President Donald Trump to tighten regulation of fentanyl and related substances when the two met in 2018 on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was seen as a move taken by China to ease trade disputes.

China then passed new laws that took effect on May 1, 2019, to put all fentanyl-related substances under national control.

In July 2022 testimony, a senior adviser to the Office of National Drug Control Policy stated that as a result, “the direct shipment of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances from China to the United States went down to almost zero.”

What role does China play?

After China regulated fentanyl-related substances, Mexican transnational criminal organizations became the main operators in the production and distribution of illegal fentanyl in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

“The cartels are buying precursor chemicals in the People’s Republic of China (PRC); transporting the precursor chemicals from the PRC to Mexico; using the precursor chemicals to mass produce fentanyl; pressing the fentanyl into fake prescription pills; and using cars, trucks, and other routes to transport the drugs from Mexico into the United States for distribution,” said Anne Milgram, administrator of DEA, at a Senate hearing in February.

Why does the US accuse China of lax cooperation?

Certain precursors used in the production of fentanyl are internationally classified as unscheduled chemicals and legal to produce in China and export. Beijing argues that it cannot restrict the export of precursors that are not illegal.

The U.S. has repeatedly called on China to adopt a “know-your-customer” approach such as identifying and verifying customer identities to ensure that these chemicals are not sold to likely drug traffickers and to alert authorities about such buyers.

However, in an interview with Newsweek in September 2022, Qin Gang, the then-Chinese ambassador to the U.S., said that approach “goes far beyond the obligations of countries under the United Nations Convention on Drug Control.”

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