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June 18, 2023

Blinken will seek China’s cooperation in curbing fentanyl at high-stakes visit

Credit: The Guardian

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will seek China’s cooperation in curbing the production of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl during his two-day visit to Beijing, one of several contentious issues that the high-stakes diplomatic outreach will touch on.

Aides to Blinken have said the issue will feature prominently in discussions between US and Chinese officials during the trip as the US seeks China’s help in curbing Chinese manufacture of precursor chemicals used to create the drug that helped drive more than two-thirds of 100,000 American overdose deaths in each of the past two years.

“Blinken held candid, substantive, and constructive talks today” with China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, in Beijing, the state department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said on Sunday.

Fentanyl issues are a test of US-China cooperation outside pressing geopolitical disputes, including China’s threat to unify with Taiwan, technology transfers, China’s relationship with Russia, surveillance disputes and trade imbalances.

US law enforcement agencies have repeatedly placed blame on Chinese companies for shipping precursor chemicals to Mexico, where cartels manufacture and ship the deadly drug to the US.

In a policy speech in May last year, Blinken said, “We want to work with China to stop international drug trafficking organizations from getting precursor chemicals, many of which originate in China.”

But three months later, US officials said China had cut off all talks on the issue after the then House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, made a diplomatically unpopular visit to Taiwan.

China trade officials point to US demand for opioid drugs and maintain that fentanyl precursors are ordinary chemicals sold through normal trade channels.

A statement that the Chinese embassy in Washington provided to the Wall Street Journal said: “The US needs to do some serious reflections on this.”

Two bills are before US lawmakers aimed at requiring China to label the shipment of precursors more clearly and for China to cooperate with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The Democratic congressman David Trone recently introduced a bill requiring Customs and Border Protection to improve its port inspection policies. A similar bill is before Senate lawmakers.

Separately, US lawmakers passed the Fentanyl Results Act that requires the state department to work with Mexican, Chinese and other foreign law enforcement “to work on detecting synthetic drugs”, according to the Maryland lawmaker.

On the Republican side, the Florida US senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to Blinken last month calling for China to be held accountable for its role in the opioid epidemic.

“We cannot rely on a regime that multiple observers and experts believe subordinates its counternarcotics cooperation to its geostrategic goals,” Rubio wrote.

In April, the US justice department singled out two Chinese companies for sanctions for allegedly selling chemical ingredients to the notorious Sinaloa cartel that the US says have moved into fentanyl production under the leadership of the “Chapitos”, the sons of former cartel head Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

The US treasury department’s office of foreign assets control announced last month announced new sanctions against seven entities and six individuals based in China, as well as one entity and three people in Mexico.

China’s foreign ministry said such actions could create “obstacles” for further cooperation with Washington to tackle the crisis, according to the South China Morning Post.

The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also put pressure on Beijing to curb exports of both precursors and the drug itself. In a speech last month, López Obrador countered Chinese denials of fentanyl smuggling, saying a container that recently arrived in Mexico from China was found to contain the synthetic opioid.

“We already have the evidence,” he said, adding that Mexico would ask “very respectfully” for China to inform it when the contraband leaves its ports – and, if possible, seize it.

But former US diplomats say Chinese cooperation on the issue may hinge on a range of issues, including the sensitive theory that Covid-19 originated from a Chinese lab leak.

The Joe Biden White House set a 90-day deadline in March for US intelligence agencies to report back to him on what they know about the pandemic’s origins.

Biden said then that the US would work with allies to continue to press China “to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence”. The deadline for the report falls today.

But there have also been signs of progress on the fentanyl issue. Last week, the US and China reportedly resumed talks on drug control cooperation.

Zhao Junning, deputy director of China’s national medical products administration, met Andi Fristedt, the US Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for policy, legislation and international affairs, in Beijing and “exchanged views on cooperation”.

“Cooperation between Chinese and US drug regulatory agencies not only helps promote regulatory coordination between the two countries, but also lays a solid foundation for global cooperation in the field of drug regulation,” Zhao was quoted as saying.

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