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U.S. and China hold high-level talks on the fentanyl crisis

BEIJING — American and Chinese officials had “frank and honest discussions” about stemming the flow of fentanyl into the U.S., but Beijing could do much more to help stem what has been called the worst drug crisis in U.S. history, the head of the White House delegation at the high-level talks told NBC News on Tuesday. 

Jen Daskal, a deputy homeland security adviser, said in an exclusive interview that Day One of two days of meetings with a new counternarcotics working group in Beijing had been “an important step forward in our relationship.” They were the first formal high-level talks the two global powers had held on the issue in years as their relations deteriorated amid disputes over a range of issues including trade, technology, human rights and the status of Taiwan.

“What we hope that today will do will be to launch continued cooperation so that we can share information and see more progress,” Daskal said.

Speaking before the group’s inauguration on Tuesday, Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong said the two delegations had “reached common understanding on the work plan” and that he hoped the two sides could “enhance and expand cooperation to provide more positive energy for stable, sound and sustainable China-U.S. relations.”

Fentanyl, an extremely lethal synthetic opioid, is at the center of a drug crisis that has devastated communities across the U.S. Of the more than 70,000 overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2021, the vast majority were fentanyl-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2019, China permanently classified all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances and took other measures to stem the flow of finished fentanyl from China to the U.S., which has not seized any shipments since then. Instead, U.S. officials say, China is now the primary source of precursor chemicals that are synthesized into fentanyl by drug cartels in Mexico, which then smuggle the final product into the U.S.

The resumption of U.S.-China counternarcotics cooperation was one of the outcomes of the November meeting in California between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first encounter in a year. After slowing to almost nothing, cooperation was officially suspended by China in August 2022 in response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.

Since the Biden-Xi meeting, Daskal said, China has issued a notice to domestic companies warning them against illicit sales of precursor chemicals and imposing new enforcement measures. It is also once again submitting information about suspicious shipments and suspected trafficking to the International Narcotics Control Board.

But there is much more that can be done, Daskal said.

“We will know if it works if we start seeing the supply of precursor drugs diminish, if we start seeing the supply of pill presses and other equipment diminish,” she said.

China counters that the U.S. is mainly to blame for the crisis, and that American officials aren’t doing enough to reduce demand.

“The fentanyl crisis in the United States is not manufactured by China; its roots lie within the country itself,” Yu Haibin, one of China’s top narcotics control officials, said in an interview last week, adding that China nonetheless empathized with Americans’ drug-related suffering. 

“The Chinese people are willing to actively participate in global drug control efforts and help the American people overcome the harm of drugs,” said Yu, who is deputy director-general of the Ministry of Public Security’s Narcotics Control Bureau and deputy secretary-general of the National Narcotics Control Commission. 

Daskal said that U.S. officials and their Chinese counterparts had discussed “the fact that this is a problem of both demand and supply, and you can’t tackle one without the other.”

“Fentanyl is different to other forms of drugs that we have seen before in that the demand is being fueled by the traffickers,” she said, adding that traffickers were hiding fentanyl in other drugs to get their customers addicted “so they want it more and more.” 

Many of the constantly shifting precursor chemicals are “dual use,” meaning they also have legal purposes and are difficult to restrict, “but that doesn’t mean that they should be heading to the hands of organized crime actors who explicitly intend to produce fentanyl from them, something that the suppliers in China very frequently know,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and co-director of its series on the American opioid crisis.

China’s substantial change in rhetoric indicates that there will indeed be an increase in cooperation, Felbab-Brown said. But the question, she said, is how much cooperation and how meaningful it will be.

On a scale of one to 10, “my expectation is we will likely be somewhere between four and five,” she said.

Felbab-Brown said China, driven partly by concerns about the state of its economy, is “seeking to put a floor underneath the free-fall of the relationship” with the U.S., an important element of which is counternarcotics cooperation.

But any such cooperation is still subject to the vicissitudes of the broader U.S.-China relationship. If there were a major crisis between the two countries, like last year’s spy balloon incident, “we might see pullback from the cooperation,” she said.

Among the steps the U.S. would like to see China take, Felbab-Brown said, are instituting stringent “Know Your Customers” measures, sharing information with the U.S. and acting on intelligence the U.S. provides, and using laws against supporting organized crime groups to prosecute companies that sell chemicals that are not technically illegal.

Success in addressing the fentanyl crisis also requires cooperation from the government of Mexico, which Felbab-Brown said had been “very limited and inadequate” under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who leaves office this year.

“U.S. policy toward Mexico has essentially been in a straitjacket over the migration issue, and it’s important to find ways to break out of that so that the U.S. can put meaningful pressure on Mexico to have some cooperation restart,” she said.

Daskal said the Biden administration would do everything possible to cooperate with China and get results.

“But we have to take it step by step,” she said, “and we’re going to continue to look for action that follows on the conversations.”

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing, Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong and Henry Austin from London.

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