China’s decision to suspend counternarcotics cooperation with the United States to protest a high-profile congressional visit to Taiwan is fueling fears of a sharp increase in overdose deaths from Chinese-supplied stocks of fentanyl.
The Chinese suspension of the bilateral talks was announced on Aug. 5, and current and former U.S. officials are warning of the fallout from increased drug trafficking into the country by Mexican cartels working with Chinese criminal gangs to move fentanyl, the chemicals used to make it, and other illicit drugs.
Fentanyl seizures were already skyrocketing before the talks ended, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In July, a total of 2,130 pounds of fentanyl was seized. That was nearly as much fentanyl seized for all of 2019.
The flow of Chinese-produced fentanyl, a synthetic opioid blamed for the overdose deaths of 100,000 people in the U.S. last year, instead shifted to Mexico.
The Biden administration’s troubles securing the southern border have allowed Mexican drug cartels to ship massive amounts of fentanyl into the United States, former officials said.
James Carroll, a White House drug czar under Mr. Trump, said his agreement with Mr. Xi resulted in a sharp decline in direct fentanyl shipments, only to have the supply routes redirected to Mexico.
Mr. Carroll said the diminished shipments of fentanyl from China show that Beijing can stop the illicit trade if it wants. “[The Chinese] denied they were sending it to Mexico,” he said in an interview.
The 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 during the Trump administration, predicted that the suspension of counternarcotics talks would lead to an increase in fentanyl shipments and a rise in overdose deaths of 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 of 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.
Large seizures of fentanyl indicate that traffickers are moving larger quantities of the drug into the United States than in previous years, he said.
The former acting DEA chief said the problem of Chinese drug trafficking has been compounded by a significant deterioration in the level of U.S.-Mexican law enforcement cooperation under President Biden and leftist Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Mexico’s government enacted legislation restricting DEA agents’ work and now requires the U.S. drug agency to disclose all aspects of its counternarcotics efforts to Mexican officials.
Given the corruption and links between Mexican law enforcement and drug organizations, the law has made it difficult for the DEA to work in the country, Mr. Dhillon said.
Extraditions from Mexico for drug-related prosecutions also have sharply declined, and Mexico City has halted DEA aircraft operations in the country.
“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.
Drug cartels control transportation corridors throughout Mexico 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 the Biden administration did not appear to be putting pressure on China to crack down on fentanyl shipments to Mexico even before the cutoff of talks. The White House national drug control strategy issued in April emphasized bilateral engagement and multilateral cooperation as keys to dealing with the drug crisis.
A Congressional Research Service report issued last month said the Biden administration’s policy toward China in countering drugs seeks increased collaboration and continued engagement to reduce fentanyl precursor shipments.
After its cooperation, the Chinese government has voiced frustration that its efforts have not led to progress in other areas of its ties with the U.S., 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.
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 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 since before the Pelosi delegation’s Taiwan visit on Aug. 2.
The Chinese government announced in September 2021 that the U.S. move to sanction the MPS institute “seriously affected China’s examination and identification of fentanyl substances and hindered the operation of its fentanyl monitoring system.” The government said the action “greatly affected China’s goodwill to help” in counternarcotics.
The Congressional Research Service 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, 1-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 Counternarcotics Working Group.
A need for action
A former State Department official said recent Chinese cooperation on counternarcotics was limited to dialogue, without action from Beijing.
“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 the 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 on 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 the Chinese government announced after 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 canceled three forums for U.S.-Chinese military talks.
Chinese cooperation on repatriating illegal immigrants and on transnational crime and talks on climate change were also suspended.
Mr. Carroll said the U.S. government needs to take greater action to identify and stop shipments of fentanyl, which 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 reengage and allow U.S. law enforcement to operate in Mexico effectively.”