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June 17, 2023

Blinken to Seek China’s Help Curbing Deadly Fentanyl Traffic in Landmark Visit

Credit: Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to seek Beijing’s help curbing international traffic in the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl when he visits, in a bid to remove an irritant from the contentious U.S.-China relationship.

In his first visit to China as secretary of state, Blinken will meet with Chinese officials, possibly including leader Xi Jinping, on Sunday and Monday as part of an American effort to break the logjam that has halted cooperation on areas including narcotics and climate change. He will also work to restore communications over the most divisive issues, chief among them Beijing’s threat to reunify with Taiwan, by force if necessary.

Aides to Blinken say the fentanyl trade is one of the most important issues in the U.S.-China relationship and that it would feature prominently in discussions between Blinken and Chinese officials.

“It’s important that we raise it directly, and if we don’t accomplish an exact breakthrough on this trip, that we make progress to addressing the issue down the road,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Fueled by fentanyl, a potent drug that can be deadly in tiny doses, the U.S. reported more than 100,000 drug-overdose deaths a year in the past two years, according to data for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. law-enforcement officials blame Chinese companies for shipping the chemicals used to make fentanyl to Mexico and other locations, where drug cartels and gangs manufacture it and smuggle it into the U.S.

Beijing hasn’t embraced U.S. proposals for Chinese chemical companies to know their customers better, more clearly label shipments of fentanyl precursors and cooperate with U.S. drug-enforcement agencies, said Rep. David Trone (D., Md.), who lost a nephew to a fentanyl overdose and has discussed the issue with Chinese embassy officials.

A Washington, D.C., rally in September against fentanyl poisonings featured banners with the faces of people who have died from the synthetic opioid. PHOTO: ERIC LEE/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES
Chinese officials say the ingredients of fentanyl are ordinary chemicals sold through normal trade and point to the U.S. population’s consumption of opioid drugs.

“In international trade, it is the importer’s duty to prevent such chemicals from falling into the hands of illicit drugmakers,” the Chinese embassy in Washington said in a statement. “As China and the rest of the world strengthen control of fentanyl-related substances, the fentanyl issue in the U.S. has been deteriorating and taking away even more lives. The U.S. needs to do some serious reflections on this.”

China ceased all talks on fentanyl after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, the self-governed democratic island that China considers a renegade province, U.S. officials say. The shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon off South Carolina’s coast also interrupted dialogue.

Chinese officials say U.S. sanctions on the national police ministry’s forensics institute affect a related laboratory crucial to counternarcotics work, undermining cooperation on fentanyl. Washington said it targeted the institute for its actions in the Xinjiang region, where Beijing has orchestrated a crackdown on members of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority.

The Biden administration hopes Blinken’s visit will clarify and disentangle the many issues in the U.S.-China relationship, paving the way for a more focused discussion on individual problems, including fentanyl.

“The U.S. side is trying to get China to set aside the problem areas to see what we can do,” said Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific region during the Obama administration. “The Chinese are trying to leverage U.S. interest in solving problems in order to get things that they want and reverse things that they find offensive, like the laboratory.”

Some Republicans have questioned the timing of Blinken’s trip, given the low expectations for breakthroughs on major issues. Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho) said dealing with Mexico could be more effective in curbing the fentanyl trade. “They could have this win themselves if they close the southern border,” said Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, backed a more confrontational approach to China, saying Blinken should “move forward on sanctions and export controls and prioritize the protection of American interests during discussions” with Chinese Communist Party officials.

How should Secretary Blinken address China’s role in the fentanyl trade? Join the conversation below.

On their side, Chinese officials blame sanctions the U.S. imposed on Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu for preventing a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of an annual security forum in Singapore earlier this month.