China’s decision to suspend counter-narcotics cooperation with the United States to protest a high-profile congressional visit to Taiwan is fueling new fears of a sharp increase in overdose deaths from Chinese-supplied stocks of fentanyl.
The Chinese suspension of the bilateral talks was announced Aug. 5, and now current and former American officials are warning of the fallout from increased drug trafficking into the United States by the Mexican drug cartels that are working with Chinese criminal gangs to move fentanyl, the chemicals used to make it, and other illicit drugs into the country.
Fentanyl seizures were already skyrocketing before the talks ended, according to statistics from the Customs and Border Protection Agency. In July, a total of 2,130 pounds of fentanyl was seized — nearly as much of the drug as was seized for all of 2019.
White House drug czar Rahul Gupta called on China last week to rejoin the counterdrug talks, warning of greater drug shipments unless the talks are resumed. Unless Beijing does more, “fentanyl and methamphetamine synthesized with precursors made in China will continue to flood the world,” Dr. Gupta told the Wall Street Journal.
Dr. Gupta called China’s suspension of the talks “unfortunate” and noted that the Chinese government in May 2019 cracked down on fentanyl-related exports, producing a sharp decline in the drug reaching U.S. shores.
“But since those actions, North America has been flooded with precursor chemicals from China, stifling international efforts,” he said.
Dr. Gupta made no mention of whether the lack of controls on the border and large influx of illegal immigrants is partly to blame for the flood of drugs.
China’s halt in the narcotics talks was among eight canceled or suspended bilateral exchanges with the United States in response to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a visit Beijing said violated the longstanding “one China” policy regarding the island’s status.
“At a time when the overdose epidemic continues to claim a life every five minutes, it’s unacceptable that the PRC is withholding its cooperation that would help to bring to justice individuals who traffic these illicit drugs and who engage in this global criminal enterprise,” Dr. Gupta said earlier on Twitter.
David L. Asher, a former State Department official, said the Chinese action will lead to even more fentanyl precursor shipments to Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels, criminal groups that are working with chemical manufacturers in China in producing fentanyl.
“Based on their actions, communist China is in a covert opioid war with the U.S., and PRC operatives have taken over money laundering across the U.S. and Canada,” said Mr. Asher now with the Hudson Institute’s China Center. “That, alone, should be the basis for a [racketeering] prosecution, but the Justice Department and Office of National Drug Control Policy instead are relying on cooperation from China that is a total ‘dead letter item,’” he said.
During the Trump administration, China’s government in 2018 cracked down on direct shipments of fentanyl into the United States through the mail and inside backpacks of so-called drug mules. The slowdown followed a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-President Trump and an agreement by China to curb fentanyl and related exports.
Within 90 days of the December 2018 agreement reached during the G-20 summit in Argentina, direct Chinese fentanyl shipments to the United States nearly ended, according to former U.S. counter drug officials.
But the flow of Chinese-produced fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid that is blamed for the overdose deaths of 100,0000 people last year, instead shifted to Mexico.
The Biden administration’s troubles securing the southern border have allowed Mexican drug cartels to step up shipping massive amounts of fentanyl into the United States, former officials said.
James Carroll, former White House drug czar under Mr. Trump, said his agreement with Mr. Xi resulted in a sharp decline in direct fentanyl shipments, only to see the supply routes redirected to Mexico.
Mr. Carroll said the diminished shipments of fentanyl from China shows Beijing can stop the illicit trade if it wants. “[The Chinese] denied they were sending it to Mexico,” he said in an interview.
The continuing failure to control the border with Mexico is a major factor in the increased fentanyl imports. “Almost all the fentanyl that is in the U.S has come across the Southwest border,” Mr. Carroll said.
Uttam Dhillon, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) during the Trump administration, predicted that the suspension of the counternarcotics talks will lead to an increase in fentanyl shipments and a rise in overdose deaths among Americans.
Any lack of cooperation with any country — but especially with a country like China that is already providing the Mexican drug cartels with enormous amounts fentanyl, fentanyl precursors and methamphetamine precursors — will almost certainly result in an increase in the ability of the Mexican drug cartels to produce and distribute those drugs in the United States,” Mr. Dhillon said.
Recent large seizures of fentanyl are an indication that traffickers are moving larger quantities of the drug into the United States than in previous years, he said.
According to the former acting DEA chief, the problem of Chinese drug trafficking has been compounded by a significant deterioration in the level of U.S.-Mexican law enforcement cooperation in Mexico under President Biden and leftist Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Mexico’s government passed legislation restricting DEA agents’ work in Mexico now requiring the U.S. drug agency to disclose all aspects of its counterdrug efforts to Mexican officials.
Given the corruption and links between Mexican law enforcement and drug organizations, the new law has made it very difficult for DEA to work in the country, Mr. Dhillon said.
Extraditions from Mexico for drug-related prosecutions also have sharply declined, and DEA aircraft operations in Mexico were halted by Mexico City.
“So the combination of China basically telling the U.S. they are no longer going to cooperate on drug trafficking issues, and the ability of Mexican drug traffickers to operate undeterred in Mexico without concerns about U.S. law enforcement, you’re creating a perfect storm for far more drugs entering this country,” Mr. Dhillon said.
Mexican drug cartels control transportation corridors throughout the country and up to U.S. borders, he said.
The increase in illicit drug trafficking is not limited to fentanyl. The cartels also are increasing shipments of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.
“Almost certainly you’ll see drug overdose deaths in all of those categories going up,” Mr. Dhillon said.
Mr. Carroll, the former drug czar, said even before the cutoff of talks, it did not appear that the Biden administration was putting pressure on China to crack down on fentanyl shipments to Mexico. The White House national drug control strategy issued in April emphasized bilateral engagement and multilateral cooperation as the key to dealing with the drug crisis.
A Congressional Research Service report issued last month said the Biden administration policy toward China in countering drugs seeks increased collaboration and continued engagement to reduce fentanyl precursor shipments.
After initially cooperating, China’s government has voiced frustration that its efforts have not led to progress in other areas of U.S.-China ties, such as lowering trade tariffs imposed by Mr. Trump.
China also is upset by Treasury Department sanctions on 20 Chinese and Hong Kong entities linked to fentanyl trafficking.
Further, Beijing threatened to cut off cooperation after the Institute of Forensic Science, a unit of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the federal police and intelligence service, was added to the U.S. Commerce Department’s trading blacklist in May 2020. The blacklisting was imposed in response to the institute’s reported role in the repression of ethnic Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.
Chinese counternarcotics cooperation appears to have been in trouble even before the Pelosi delegation’s Taiwan visit Aug. 2.
The Chinese government announced in September 2021 that the U.S. move to sanctions the MPS institute “seriously affected China’s examination and identification of fentanyl substances and hindered the operation of its fentanyl monitoring system.” The government also said the action “greatly affected China’s goodwill to help” in counternarcotics.
The CRS report said some U.S. goals for cooperation with China on curbing fentanyl “remain unmet.”
After controlling some fentanyl precursors, China failed to take action to control other chemical precursors, including those identified as 4-AP, boc-4-AP, and norfentanyl.
Pandemic restrictions also prevented in-person meetings with the two U.S.-China forums that are the main conduits for the now-suspended talks, the Bilateral Drug Intelligence Working Group and the Counter Narcotics Working Group.
A need for action
A former State Department official said recent Chinese cooperation on counternarcotics has been limited to dialogue, without Beijing taking action.
“China wanted to do something abstract without taking specific actions,” the former official said. “Beijing is hostile to the U.S. and therefore the cooperation talks sought to neutralize political elites while allowing fentanyl to do harmful things to the United States.”
China has dismissed official U.S. concerns about the lack of counterdrug cooperation. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said last month that United States is to blame for the breakdown in anti-drug cooperation.
“The responsibility of undermining China-U.S. counternarcotics cooperation rests entirely with the U.S. side,” Mr. Wang told reporters Aug. 12.
Mr. Wang said the sanctions on the MPS Institute of Forensic Science undermined cooperation because the institute is in charge of detecting and controlling fentanyl-like substances.
The ending of counternarcotics talks was among eight punitive actions announced by China’s government following the Pelosi visit to Taiwan. Beijing launched large-scale war games shortly after the visit that U.S. officials said appeared to be practice for an invasion of the self-ruled island state.
In addition to halting counternarcotics talks, the Chinese also canceled three separate forums for U.S.-China military talks.
Chinese cooperation on repatriating illegal immigrants, on transnational crime and talks on climate change were also suspended.
Mr. Carroll, the former drug czar, said the U.S. government needs to take greater action to identify and stop shipments of fentanyl, a drug he called a “weapon of mass destruction.”
“We’re on track to have the highest record of fatal overdoses in the history of our country,” he said. “We need to attack the supply problem because we are making great strides in the U.S. on the demand side.”
Progress is being made in treating addiction but stopping drug imports must be a key element of a counterdrug strategy. “We need to hold China and Mexico accountable,” he said.
Said Mr. Dhillon, the former acting DEA administrator: “In order to effectively attack America’s drug overdose problem, we need a secure Southwest border, and Mexico must be forced to re-engage and allow U.S. law enforcement to operate in Mexico effectively.”