The flow of the deadly narcotic fentanyl from China to the U.S. has surged despite President Trump’s trade war with the communist county and President Xi Jinping’s promise to crack down on the illicit trade.
Customs and Border Protection agents have seized nearly 2,400 pounds of fentanyl this year through Aug. 31, enough to kill roughly 475 million people. That represents a nearly 32% increase from the same period last year.
CBP’s numbers represent a sliver of fentanyl flowing into the U.S. because U.S. authorities missed so much of it. China, the world’s largest producer of fentanyl, accounts for 68% of the synthetic opioid’s movement.
The number of deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids has jumped from about 3,000 in 2013 to more than 30,000 in 2018, according to a report by the Rand Corp. The same report found that fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, is involved in twice as many deaths as heroin.
The sobering statistics have raised questions about whether economic sanctions are enough to pressure the Chinese to clamp down on fentanyl production.
“There is a simple measurement to know if [the trade war] is effective: Deaths will decline,” said John Walters, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, now at the Hudson Institute. “Until deaths decline, economic enforcement is not doing it.”
The Trump administration has punished China’s failure to get tough on fentanyl through his trade war. Mr. Trump escalated the battle this month by imposing a 15% tariff on roughly $112 billion of Chinese exports. A round of 25% to 30% tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods is set for Oct. 15, and another round of 15% tariffs on roughly $160 billion of imports is scheduled for December. “[Mr. Xi] said he was going to stop fentanyl from coming into our country. It’s all coming out of China. He didn’t do that,” Mr. Trump told reporters in late August shortly before the tariffs went into effect.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called Mr. Trump’s comments “blatant slander.”
“When it comes to reducing demand for fentanyl, the U.S. government absolutely can do even more,” he said. “The United States should respect the facts and stop pinning the blame on others.”
China has taken some action in response to the economic threats but not enough to move the needle, analysts say. The country announced in April that it would close a loophole manufacturers were using to evade regulatory control.
The Trump administration has said it would rather see large-scale drug raids and law enforcement action than regulatory solutions.
At the same time, China has accused the U.S. of asking it to solve its opioid problem and has blamed the epidemic on Americans’ demand for the drug.
“The Chinese are not our friends,” Mr. Walters said. “They are our strategic rivals and not concerned about the weakening the United States.”
Others say Chinese officials are sincere about their efforts to crack down on fentanyl but the problem has spiraled out of control. Fentanyl is cheap and easy to make, and the country is populated with tens of thousands of underground laboratories dedicated to pumping it into the market.
Fentanyl is largely shipped directly to the U.S. via international mail or transported to Mexico and smuggled across the porous southern border.
“I think the Chinese have every reason to cooperate, but I question if they have the capacity to do that given that this drug can be produced with minimal capital and minimal expertise,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Morrison said China aims to become a global power in the biopharmaceuticals market. To achieve that goal, it needs to develop strong collaborative relationships with the dominant countries in that sector, including the United States. Being labeled as the world’s drug dealer imperils that effort, he said.
“The problem has run away from the Chinese government, and they are playing catch-up,” Mr. Morrison said.
Whatever the reason, analysts say, the Trump administration should continue to push economic incentives to force China to act. The thinking is that the economic pain will spur action at some point.
“This is new territory,” Mr. Walters said. “We don’t know how much pressure needs to be applied for them to react. This is not something you can know ahead of time. You are going to have to try some things and increase pressure until you see a result.”
J. Roger Bate, an analyst on health policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said economic threats should be part of an overall strategy for dealing with China.
“I think you can make the case that this wasn’t a bad idea, but this isn’t going to solve the problem alone,” he said. “When it comes to addiction and the use of products, there has to better management of demand in the United States. Preventing it from getting on the streets is also important. A lot of those issues revolve around the criminal networks and Mexican and U.S. gangs.”
Mr. Morrison also called for the U.S. and China to hold high-level talks on the fentanyl issue.
The countries have opened a dialogue. Jim Carroll, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, traveled to the Beijing this week to press the Chinese government to crack down on fentanyl production. Mr. Morrison called the meeting “encouraging.”
Mr. Bate called on the administration to keep pressure China, saying he is worried it might back off as the 2020 presidential election nears. The president will want to tout a strong economy while he stumps for reelection, and lowering tariffs is largely seen as beneficial to U.S. trade. But fentanyl remains a top issue in America’s heartland, where the death count is rising.
“Fentanyl may get off the front page if China is acquiescing in other areas that might be of concern to the administration,” he said. “But the statistics on fentanyl deaths are truly horrific, and I worry this might fall through the cracks.”