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U.S.-China Counternarcotics Policy
Madeline Guenther | Oct 31, 2022

The United States' opioid epidemic has impacted thousands of families and communities across the country. The NIH states that in 2020 "nearly 92,000 persons in the U.S. died from drug-involved overdoses," compared with 70,630 who died of drug overdoses in 2019 (NIH). Fentanyl, "a potent synthetic opioid used medically as a painkiller and an anesthetic," is the leading cause of these overdoses (NIH). Before 2019, China produced much of the U.S.'s supply of the lethal drug. In May 2019, under pressure from the international community and "intense diplomacy," the PRC ``scheduled” fentanyl, which means that it banned the production and sale of the drug. (Brookings). However, suppliers in China shifted from shipping finished fentanyl to the U.S. to shipping "precursor" chemicals to Mexico. From those precursors, Mexican drug cartels, especially the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels, smuggle the finished drug across the border. 

Since China scheduled fentanyl, U.S.-China cooperation on counternarcotics has dramatically declined. China's desire to improve "overall bilateral geostrategic relations" resulted in their counternarcotics cooperation with the U.S (Brookings). However, overdose deaths continued to rise (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic). Currently, much of the fentanyl trade is conducted online, with anonymous vendors in China selling fentanyl precursors on websites like “Alibaba, the Chinese wholesale e-commerce platform” (NPR). They then ship these chemicals in the mail, using services like "Gaosheng Biotechnology Co. Ltd" (NPR). This strategy is effective for the traffickers because fentanyl is lethal even in small doses— according to one estimate, it would only take about "five tons of fentanyl" to supply the entire United States for a year (Brookings).

However, China's National Narcotics Control Commission claims to have no knowledge of this online drug trade, stating that "there is basically no information related to the illegal sales of fentanyl-class chemicals on websites within Chinese borders or pharmaceutical and chemical platforms" (NPR). Additionally, China rejects much of the blame for trafficking precursor chemicals to Mexico. The PRC maintains that "controls and enforcement are matters for Mexico's own customs authorities and other Mexican law enforcement to address" (NPR). 

A Brookings report entitled "China and synthetic drugs control: Fentanyl, methamphetamines, and precursors," predicts that China will "limit its counternarcotics collaboration with the United States unless the overall bilateral relationship improves" (Brookings). As U.S.-China relations worsen, however, additionally cooperation in counternarcotics or any other area seem unlikely. Thus, as overdose deaths in the U.S. continue to rise, narcotics are a crucial area where the strained relationship between the United States and China substantially affects ordinary individuals. 



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