Wed, May 15, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Trade frictions raise questions
about China’s opioid promise

Some US officials who work with Chinese law enforcement believe they are committed to clamping down on the flow of the opioid fentanyl as promised, but others are less hopeful, as Beijing has reneged on such deals before

By Jonathan Landay  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON

IIllustration: Mountain People

China has pledged to stem a flood of the synthetic opioid fentanyl onto US streets, where it kills thousands of people per month, but US security experts are skeptical about whether Beijing is willing, or even able, to follow through.

Ten current and former US officials, congressional sources, and China and trade experts said in interviews that China cooperates only when it believes it will get something in return.

In this case, Beijing appears to have offered its help so that it could get the best deal possible from Washington in trade negotiations, several said.

“Will they enforce this, or is this just another gesture to be used to secure something they want?” said Robin Cleveland, vice chair of the congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which monitors the national security impact of bilateral trade and economic ties.

“I think they would hope to leverage it in some meaningful way in the context of trade talks,” she said.

Those trade talks ran into trouble last week with China backtracking on earlier commitments to change its laws in key areas, including intellectual property rights, trade secrets, forced technology transfers, access to financial services and currency manipulation, Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing US government and private-sector sources.

US President Donald Trump on Friday last week responded to China by vowing to raise tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 to 25 percent.

Unless resolved in a new round of negotiations, the mounting tensions over trade could derail China’s cooperation on fentanyl.

“They are not going to do it, the record says, unless they get a trade deal or we threaten them in the absence of a trade deal,” said Derek Scissors, an expert on Sino-US economic relations at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. “They can stop this if they want, but they won’t unless they see a deal.”

An explosion in the use of fentanyl, an opioid painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin, and its analogues has driven the most devastating chapter of the US’ long-running opioid crisis, and China accounts for most of the fentanyl and fentanyl analogues seized, US law enforcement agencies say.

The US in 2017 recorded more than 28,000 synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of them fentanyl-related.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in December last year promised Trump at a summit in Argentina that Beijing would crack down on flows of all fentanyl-related substances.

Last month, China pledged that from May 1 it would expand the list of narcotics subject to state control to the more than 1,400 known fentanyl analogues, which have a slightly different chemical makeup, but are all addictive and potentially deadly, as well as any new ones to be developed.

Fentanyl and all of its analogues are controlled substances subject to strict regulation in the US.

Speaking in Beijing on Friday last week, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) said that China had implemented the change as promised starting from May 1, a move he said had been positively appraised by the US.

“I want to emphasize here that China keeps to its word,” he told a daily news briefing. “At the same time, I would also like to point out that the root cause of the US fentanyl problem is not in China.”

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