The powerful and deadly synthetic drug fentanyl was at the forefront of an alarming spike in US overdose deaths in 2021. Mexican Cartels, the main supplier of fentanyl to the US market, rely heavily on China’s severely underregulated chemical production industry for the chemicals needed to create fentanyl. Despite the industry’s central role in the lethal fentanyl supply chain, the Communist Party has been selectively willing to cooperate with the US to address this issue. Given the geopolitical gridlock between the US and China, bilateral cooperation between the two seems unlikely, prolonging the already detrimental wave of the ongoing US opioid crisis.
Fentanyl’s ascent to the forefront of the US opioid crisis and antidrug priorities began in 2016. As the drug became increasingly mixed with other drugs like heroin and cocaine, demand grew immensely. Combined with a steady illicit supply, the fentanyl wave had begun. Along with the new wave of the opioid crisis came emerging dynamics on both the supply and demand sides.
The 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA) states that in 2016, law enforcement seized a record 287 kilograms of fentanyl, a 72 percent increase from 2015. The 2017 NDTA also noted the increasing availability of fentanyl-laced pills marketed as legitimate prescription opioids like Percocet and Xanax. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 20,000 of these counterfeit pills in 2016, 20.4 million in 2021, and more than 10.2 million between May and September 2022. DEA Laboratory testing discovered that six out of ten fake pills analyzed in 2022 have a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, compared to only four out of ten pills analyzed in 2021. Fentanyl’s expanding footprint has caused a spike in synthetic opioid-related overdoses. In 2021, a record 65 percent of the record 108,000 US overdoses were related to synthetic opioids.
For the US, 2016 was not the first fentanyl overdose outbreak. Between April 2005 and March 2007, the DEA reported 1,013 non-pharmaceutical fentanyl-related deaths. The DEA attributed the outbreak to the ‘readily available’ precursor chemical N-phenethyl-4-piperidone (NPP). As a response to the outbreak, the DEA designated NPP as a Schedule 1 chemical, which subjects its sale to regulations, deterring its illicit usage. The US continued to weaponize scheduling against several other key chemicals used to produce illicit fentanyl. The US Department of Treasury also sanctions significant figures in the illicit drug trade, but experts claim the sanctions overlook the complexities of the market.
By 2019, fentanyl had ousted the previous market hegemon, heroine, as the main driver of the US opioid crisis. The shift from heroine to fentanyl also represented a shift from non-synthetic drugs to synthetics in the US market. And the emergence of demand for synthetics boosted the need for the precursor chemicals needed to produce fentanyl, opening the door to China’s tricky chemical production industry and the Communist Party. China is the world’s leading chemical exporter by value and has between 160,000 to 400,000 chemical companies, most of which operate illegally.
Imposing class-wide regulations on fentanyl and its known precursors has been invaluable to US antidrug efforts. China also adopted a similar approach to countering the trade of fentanyl and its chemical precursors. Effective 1 May 2019, China officially controlled all forms of fentanyl as a class of drugs, honoring a commitment made by Xi Jinping in the May 2019 G-20 Summit. The new measure also featured stricter control of online fentanyl sales, the creation of special teams to investigate leads on fentanyl trafficking, and stricter enforcement of shipping regulations. The new measure, a result of severe diplomatic pressure from the US, curbed the flow of fentanyl and precursors coming directly from China. The US State Department’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states that China’s class scheduling “led to pronounced shifts in fentanyl and fentanyl analogue flows to the United States.” Citing data from Customs and Border Patrol, the report showed a drop of over 116 kilograms in FY2017 to less than 200 grams in FY2019 in seizures of fentanyl directly shipped from China. However, despite US-China counternarcotics cooperation yielding positive outcomes, the CCP’s will to cooperate has suffered under the overall decline of their geostrategic relationship.
The current severity of the US fentanyl crisis is a grim reminder that Washington must work with Beijing to stem the flow of illicit precursor chemicals. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), the main agency responsible for coordinating international drug control programs, adopted a strategy in 2019 based on increasing the difficulty of manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs. To do this, the strategy describes the need to “work with the People’s Republic of China to address the production, sale, and export of precursor chemicals.” China has maintained a posture of innocence toward illicit fentanyl production and trafficking, especially in the context of the US opioid crisis. Since 2018, China has not acted on US-provided indictments and intelligence on Chinese traffickers. Recently, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2022, China’s Foreign Minister characteristically announced it would suspend cooperation with the US to combat narcotics trafficking.
Besides the absence of cooperation, China’s chemical production industry remains an immovable force in the fentanyl supply chain. The industry’s role in the fentanyl supply chain is fixed due to its ability to circumvent US and Chinese drug laws and the CCP’s inability and unwillingness to regulate it. Even though the CCP identifies as a global leader in counternarcotics, they have long struggled to regulate the export of illicit drugs and chemicals, and fentanyl is the latest example.
The class regulations stemmed the flow of illicit fentanyl directly to the US, but experts doubted the regulations’ ability to stem the supply chain itself due to rising US demand and the CCP’s inability to regulate chemical production. According to the RAND Corporation, “China has some 5,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers, but regulators scrutinize a small share of companies.” This not only shows the need for regular US-China cooperation, but also China’s chemical producers’ ability to sustain an illicit output despite new regulations.
Soon after the class-wide regulations on fentanyl and its analogues took effect in May 2019, the Chinese chemical producers employed an array of tactics to sustain the illicit supply-chain. One influential tactic was using Mexican Cartels as the middleman to the US market, which not only upheld the supply-chain, but also solidified its transnational reach. An investigation by C4ADS found that chemical producers use an ‘ever-evolving’ mix of non-scheduled chemicals to avert international drug controls in addition to online advertising techniques that are sensitive to legal restrictions and enforcement pressure. These attributes, among others, show the predatory nature and agility of China’s chemical producers and some of the challenges the CCP face when trying to enforce regulations.
The industry’s rampant illicit chemical production and distribution has been costly to the CCP’s self-made image as a global leader in counternarcotics and strengthened the rift in their relations with the US. While there is a political disparity between the US and China’s motivation to tackle the fentanyl problem, there are opportunities for both countries. Regulating the chemical industry would bolster the CCP’s ability to combat transnational crime. For the US, fentanyl seizures and synthetic opioid-related overdoses would decrease at a pace parallel to that of the two countries’ bilateral efforts. But there is little global political appetite for scheduling a vast number of dual-use chemicals, which forebodes its continued absence.
Illicit fentanyl seizures and overdoses related to synthetic opioids continue to soar in the US due to severed counternarcotics cooperation and a resilient illicit supply-chain. Despite the actors and mechanisms of the fentanyl problem being responsive to comprehensive drug laws, the decline in US-China geostrategic relations moves the chance of cooperation further away from reality. And without cooperation, China’s chemical production industry maintains the upper hand against law enforcement in addition to their transnational grip on the US market and ongoing opioid crisis.