Just four years ago, a joint American and Chinese effort to stem the flow of fentanyl produced in China from reaching the United States appeared set to take off. Beijing had unveiled a sweeping new law banning the synthetic opioid, leading the Trump administration to praise China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, for “a wonderful humanitarian gesture.”
Soon, Chinese and American law enforcement agents joined forces to investigate and prosecute fentanyl traffickers in China.
But today, cooperation between the two countries on fentanyl is at an impasse. Mutual efforts to crack down on a narcotic responsible for tens of thousands of drug overdoses in the United States each year have been thwarted by wider geopolitical tensions over trade, human rights, Russia and Taiwan. The failure to cooperate on fentanyl interdiction is emblematic of the myriad ways the bilateral relationship has run aground.
In part to try to get other countries to pressure China to do more to curb the outflow of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to lead on Friday the first virtual meeting of a global coalition of nations aiming to end the threat of dangerous synthetic drugs.
China was invited to take part and join the initial coalition of 84 or so countries that have agreed to be involved in the effort, but it has not given any indication it plans to participate, said Todd D. Robinson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement. By contrast, the government of Mexico, another nation critical in the supply chain of fentanyl and other deadly opioids, has committed to participating.
“The P.R.C. needs to do more as a global partner to disrupt illicit synthetic drug chains,” Mr. Robinson said in a briefing on Thursday, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The issue is also expected to be raised in meetings this week in Beijing between Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Chinese officials. This year, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on Chinese and Mexican companies suspected of producing fentanyl pills, part of a broader effort by the U.S. government to crack down on the source of the deadly crisis.
Ms. Yellen’s visit follows Mr. Blinken’s trip to Beijing last month, during which he called on China to restart cooperation with the United States on narcotics control. Beijing froze communication with Washington on the issue after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August.
During the Blinken visit, the secretary told reporters that the two countries had agreed to “explore setting up a working group or joint effort” to combat fentanyl trafficking. But any prospects for cooperation faded just days later when U.S. federal prosecutors announced the indictment of four Chinese companies accused of trafficking chemicals used by Mexican drug cartels to manufacture vast quantities of fentanyl sold in the United States.
Since then, China has lashed out against the United States over the drug issue, accusing it of shifting blame for its own social problems onto Beijing and denying its own failures in fighting the fentanyl epidemic.
“The United States must face up to its own problems, and must not shy away from diseases,” said a recent commentary in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece. “Attacking and smearing China will not cure the chronic problem of drug abuse in the United States, but will only delay the problem of drug control in the United States into a greater social crisis.”
China speaks from experience when it comes to drugs, it often says. The country was the victim of Britain’s exploitative opium trade during the 19th century.
“Due to the painful memory of the Opium War, China is the country in the world that hates drugs the most,” said an editorial last month in the Global Times, a party tabloid.
Fentanyl has virtually no domestic market in China, and analysts say that has given Beijing less incentive to regulate its precursor chemicals, which also have an array of legal uses in the medical industry.
Instead, Beijing most likely views the fentanyl crisis as something to lord over Washington, at a time when it has grown frustrated by U.S. actions that it views as containment of China. Those include restricting Chinese access to advanced semiconductor technology and strengthening security ties between the United States and China’s neighbors like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Analysts say Beijing will want something of value in return for agreeing to help the Biden administration on fentanyl.
Some Chinese analysts blame U.S. domestic politics for driving the Biden administration’s growing pressure on China over fentanyl.
“Drug policies in the U.S. have been weak, and the presidential election year is coming,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “That gives the Republican Party an opportunity to attack the Democrats and the Biden government. That is why we are seeing the U.S. hyping this issue.”
China banned all variants of fentanyl in 2019, making good on a pledge by Mr. Xi to President Trump. As a result, direct exports of fentanyl-related chemicals to the United States plummeted.
But experts say Chinese enforcement grew progressively weaker once it became clear to Beijing that the Trump administration wouldn’t lift trade tariffs it imposed on China a year earlier. That led to a surge in precursor chemicals being shipped to Mexico, where drug cartels manufacture and ship out much of the fentanyl that ends up in the United States.
Analysts say the dispute over fentanyl highlights fundamental differences in how Washington and Beijing approach their rivalry. The Biden administration believes it can compete with China on strategic issues like security and technology, and at the same time, cooperate on issues of mutual interest such as climate change and drug control.
“China has said ‘No, we’re not interested in that proposition. If you want to cooperate on this issue, you have to to cooperate on the strategic relationship,’” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on global drug policy. She has urged Washington to coordinate with other countries to pressure China and to consider more punitive tools like sanctions to get China’s cooperation on the drug trade.
Mr. Wu, the Chinese analyst, said Washington’s approach smacks of arrogance to China because the Biden administration is trying to dictate the terms of engagement.
“The U.S. thinks that when it wants to cooperate with China, China should cooperate,” Mr. Wu said. “When it wants to suppress China in the name of competition, it can suppress China without any concern.”
“Sorry, but this is not possible,” he added.
The fentanyl issue is one area where Beijing sees itself as having leverage to extract concessions from Washington in other areas, analysts say.
“The Chinese have long seen cooperation with the U.S. not as a good in itself but as a source of leverage, and today, China’s need for leverage is substantial and growing,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was senior Asia director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
Alan Rappeport contributed reporting from Beijing.