President Biden will urge Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday to crack down on Chinese companies that help produce fentanyl, a powerful drug that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
An agreement to curb China’s illicit exports of fentanyl – and particularly the chemicals from which the drug can be made – could be one of the most significant achievements for the United States from the meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Xi, which is taking place just as Pacific leaders meet Countries come together for an international conference in San Francisco.
China is home to a thriving chemical industry that produces compounds that are made into medicines, fragrances, textile dyes and fertilizers. Some of these compounds can also combine to create fentanyl, an opioid that can be 100 times more powerful than morphine.
U.S. officials argue that this vast chemical industry plays a key role in America’s fentanyl crisis by supplying the bulk of the materials used in illegal drug labs, including in Mexico, which is now the largest exporter of fentanyl to the United States States is.
The Chinese government denies that its country plays such a central role, instead accusing the United States of harboring a culture of drug use.
“Extensive marketing by pharmaceutical companies, excessive prescriptions by doctors, ineffective government policies and the negative effects of marijuana legalization are among the factors leading to an ever-growing market for narcotics,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last year.
U.S. officials say they have prevented more fentanyl from entering the United States in the last two years than in the previous five years combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids may have caused more than 77,000 overdose deaths in the United States between May 2022 and April 2023. The problem with fentanyl overdoses is particularly acute in San Francisco, where Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi are meeting.
Ian Johnson, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said getting China to take action on fentanyl would resonate more with average Americans than the typical “outcomes” of international meetings.
“It would be nice for Biden to have to show the heartland of the United States that relations with China are more than just an esoteric matter but can actually deliver something for ordinary people,” Johnson said in a briefing from the council last week. Republicans have made fentanyl-related deaths a central theme of their campaign against Mr. Biden and Democrats in the 2024 election.
But given the difficulties of policing an illicit industry, it is unclear to what extent any agreement would stem the flow of fentanyl into the United States.
Roselyn Hsueh, an associate professor of political science at Temple University, said an agreement between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi could lead to China’s central government taking on more oversight and investing more resources in inspection and monitoring. However, she said Beijing has had difficulty containing fentanyl and its precursor chemicals in the past.
Prior to 2019, China was the primary source of fentanyl entering the United States, typically via mail and other commercial couriers. As part of trade talks with President Donald J. Trump, the Chinese government agreed in 2019 to ban the production, sale and export of all fentanyl-related drugs unless special licenses are in place.
However, this led to Chinese companies moving to Mexico and India emerging as a new manufacturing base, Ms. Hsueh said. The primary source of U.S. fentanyl was Mexican criminal organizations using Chinese-made components and Chinese money laundering services.
Today, online sales that obscure the identities of sellers and buyers make enforcement even more difficult. Regulation and enforcement of fentanyl and precursor chemicals remains “fragmented and decentralized” among Chinese local governments, industry associations and companies with vested interests in the chemical trade, Ms. Hsueh said.
U.S. officials said the problem is compounded by the fact that many of the ingredients used to make fentanyl are legal chemicals that could be used for legitimate purposes in other industries. The United States has imposed sanctions on dozens of people in China and Hong Kong over their roles in the fentanyl trade. In September, Mr Biden added China to the US list of the world’s largest drug-producing countries, a move the Chinese government denounced as a “malicious slander”.
Last month, U.S. Customs released an updated strategy to combat fentanyl and synthetic drugs, including by increasing the use of data and counterintelligence measures to track drug manufacturing and distribution networks and target suspicious sites and recipients that demonstrate patterns of illegal activity .
“In my 30 years as a Customs officer, the trafficking of synthetic illicit drugs like fentanyl has been one of the largest and most daunting challenges I have ever seen,” said Troy Miller, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
U.S. officials believe China’s dominance as a chemical producer makes Beijing’s cooperation crucial to enforcement. Administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have raised the issue with senior Chinese officials during recent trips to China.
When six lawmakers, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, had a chance to speak with Mr. Xi during a visit to China last month, the main issue they raised was not trade or military coordination or climate change, but damage This caused fentanyl in their home states.
“Everyone was telling stories, personal stories about how, you know, our friends and family died from fentanyl and how this was a really important issue, and I think you could see that it struck him how deeply we felt thought about it,” said Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Fentanyl precursors from China have become a bipartisan issue in Congress, and the six senators who spoke to Mr. Xi included three Democrats and three Republicans.
“China must enforce laws that prevent the export of fentanyl precursors to international drug markets,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana.
Despite the scale of the problem, there is hope that greater coordination between the United States and China could improve the situation. Cooperation between the countries to prevent shipments of the precursor chemicals stalled several years ago after the United States sanctioned a Chinese government agency over its alleged involvement in human rights abuses in China’s westernmost region, Xinjiang.
This sanctioned facility was located at the same Beijing address as the National Narcotics Laboratory of China, which plays a key role in China’s law enforcement efforts against drug-related chemicals.
Chinese officials are deeply angered by American sanctions against their institutions, and U.S. officials have taken the position that neither institution can cooperate with the United States because of the risk of confusion between the two institutions having the same address.
Then in August 2022, China expanded its position when it stopped all counter-narcotics coordination with the United States. This was one of several measures taken in response to a visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House of Representatives. Beijing claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy, as part of its territory.
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting from Washington.