Particularly concerning is China’s role in the trade of synthetic drugs, which has led to concerns about possible involvement in the U.S. opioid problem.
The production of illegal fentanyl, the majority of which was destined for the American drug market, was outlawed in China three years ago as a result of a vigorous diplomatic campaign by the United States. Since then, most of the illicit fentanyl production has moved from China to Mexico, where it is produced on an industrial scale utilising chemicals imported from China as precursors.
There is no proof that the Chinese government has approved the flow of precursor chemicals to Mexico as a matter of national policy, despite some claims that Beijing is purposefully poisoning Americans. China, like Russia, is notorious for its “grey zone” actions, which are intended to “thwart, disrupt, undermine, or attack an enemy and are frequently targeted toward the weaknesses of the target state.” These unorthodox strategies don’t involve regular military warfare but they can still be dangerous.
The sale of precursor chemicals and the illicit funds obtained from it has supported China’s economy at a time when it has struggled to recover from the global financial crisis, but it is unlikely that the opioid crisis is a part of some large-scale Chinese hybrid campaign against the United States.
China’s supply of precursor chemicals represents a sizeable portion of the illicit market for drugs, which continues to be a multibillion-dollar industry.
The opioid problem has also turned into a political negotiating chip for the Chinese government as tempers are once again rising over the Taiwan Strait. In protest of US congressional travels to Taiwan last month, China froze all counterdrug cooperation with the US, saying “the consequences of undermining bilateral ties and hurting China-US counternarcotics cooperation should be entirely borne by the U.S. side.”
Overall, China does not have many reasons to contribute to halting the flow of pharmaceuticals to the US. Washington should still attempt despite this, though.
The Biden administration needs to convince Beijing to crack down on Chinese chemical businesses once more, and it needs to be ready to take effective, bite-sized action in response to the threat. Included in this are targeted sanctions, indictments, and designations against chemical companies and their affiliates as well as a reinvigorated diplomatic effort to control precursor chemicals. The Department of Defense should increase funding for Joint Interagency Task Force-West, which serves as the department’s executive agent for counterdrug operations in the Indo-Pacific, so that more suspect chemical shipments may be found, tracked down, and stopped before they can be delivered.
The United States must also take action to expose China’s involvement in the drug trade and oppose Beijing’s efforts to downplay it.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, for instance, misrepresented last year that “China has not detected any scheduled precursor chemicals transported to Mexico or received any notification from the Mexican side concerning detaining scheduled chemicals coming from China.” The United States and its allies have employed novel strategies, such as the selective declassification of intelligence, to thwart Russia’s disinformation effort during the conflict in Ukraine. Washington needs to think about how to use these powers to counter other dangers.
The United States should use its cyberspace resources to obstruct the selling of precursor chemicals online.
Although it is known that Chinese criminal networks exist in Mexico, where they can personally negotiate the sale and export of precursor chemicals, many of these transactions still take place online and on social media platforms, making them easy targets for disruption.
China and the United States continue to have tense relations, and both sides are tempted to take advantage of every opportunity. However, both nations must find a way to cooperate on areas of shared concern, such as drug trafficking, as they are both major players in the global community. China, which for a long time has seen itself as a leader in anti-drug initiatives, should be aware of the potential dangers of opioids.
China has the chance to stop the flow of dangerous narcotics into the United States and establish itself as an accountable member of the world community as the main supplier of precursor chemicals to Mexican gangs. If it doesn’t, the United States will have to employ all of its military might to protect the citizens of the country.
Yes, there is an opioid crisis in the United States, but there is also a China one.