China Global

China's Role in the US Fentanyl Crisis

Episode Summary

Overdoses on fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 45. China was for years the world’s primary source of fentanyl, but that changed when the country, in 2019, effectively banned fentanyl exports to the United States, a move that the Trump administration hailed. The celebration, unfortunately, was premature. Chinese chemical and shipping companies began instead selling precursor chemicals for manufacturing fentanyl to Mexican drug cartels, which subsequently smuggled the illicit material into the United States. Beijing denies that it is the cause of the US fentanyl crisis and blames the US pharmaceutical industry’s power and American social problems. US-China cooperation on counternarcotics efforts yielded results in the past, but such collaboration is constantly in flux. The two countries’ law enforcement agencies, for example, conducted joint investigations that led to convictions of fentanyl traffickers in 2019. But despite that success, China suspended, in the wake of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan, bilateral cooperation in, among other critical areas, counternarcotics activity. The Biden administration is eager to restart cooperation to curb the fentanyl trade. To discuss China’s role in the fentanyl crisis, host Bonnie Glaser speaks with Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology. Felbab-Brown is also director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and co-director of the Brookings series “The Opioid Crisis in America: Domestic and International Dimensions”. Her book, Narco Noir: Mexico’s Cartels, Cops, and Corruption, will be released in January 2025.

Episode Notes

[02:10] Chinese Government Awareness of Illicit Domestic Narcotics

[05:30] China’s Scheduling of Fentanyl in 2019

[06:40] Difference Between Scheduling and Banning

[09:50] Lack of Cooperation Between China and Mexico 

[14:18] Chinese Counternarcotics Cooperation in Southeast Asia

[19:04] Possible Steps for China

[22:56] A Looming Fentanyl Crisis in China?

[25:43] Multilateral Approach to Counternarcotics