Fentanyl is the synthetic opioid driving America’s public health crisis. Its cheap price, widespread use, addictive quality and deadly effect make it more dangerous than other narcotics classified by the DEA.
It is, ultimately, a chemical. And it’s being used as a weapon in China’s 21st Century Opium War against America.
President Donald Trump’s 12-day, five-nation Asia tour will focus on North Korean nukes and international trade. In Beijing, however, he plans to address China’s fentanyl production and distribution, an industry that fuels what the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission calls “China’s deadly export to the United States.” Trump holds undeniable moral authority when it comes to substance abuse, having personally seen and felt the effects on his family. Forcing China’s hand on fentanyl is the right thing to do.
Drug abuse is inherently a demand issue; the underlying problem is America’s insatiable narcotics need. But there is an international supply part to the drug equation that stretches from China’s bottomless fentanyl manufacture to its bulk shipping of the deadly white powder into global markets. If Trump can get China to constrain supply, he might significantly reduce the problem.
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And if any government can control its nation’s industry, it is the one in Beijing. China already uses its authoritarian state structure to control the movement of people and ideas within its country with stunning efficiency. It even manages to do so in other jurisdictions, as when it kidnaps book publishers in Hong Kong.
But China is more passive when asked to act responsibly or confront threats to the U.S. that are otherwise perceived as serving its strategic interests. For example, North Korea developed its nuclear capacity with China’s acquiescence, if not outright blessing. Why? Because Pyongyang’s nukes make China indispensable to Korean Peninsula negotiations and future. A nuclear-armed North Korea seemed a lesser concern to China than the perceived value of bullying South Korea and regionally neutering America’s military might.
Fentanyl is the nuclear narcotic killing thousands of Americans today and another example of China’s two-faced approach. The chemical, known as “China Girl” or “China White” on the street, may have some Chinese victims, but its true value is as a profitable opiate export that also destroys American communities and roils the U.S. political landscape. Drug exports have enabled new Chinese-run drug cartels and distributors within the U.S. while untimely and tragic American deaths mount in what the president has called a “public health emergency.”
China has a deep, visceral understanding of how an Opium War can convulse a nation and collapse an empire. After all, it happened to them in the 19th century. Chinese call it their “Century of Humiliation.” Now the tables have turned. China has absorbed the Century of Humiliation’s lessons of stealth attack and economic power and applied them globally. President Xi sits atop the world’s power pinnacle; a recent Economist cover story called him “the world’s most powerful man,” and POTUS acknowledges Xi’s king-like authority.
But either this omnipotent man can control his population or not.
Given China’s authoritarian tech and police state tools, Xi’s monopoly power gives him extraordinary abilities to monitor and manage domestic criminal activity. Trump should not call to crack down further on the general population, but appeal for a more targeted application of Beijing’s honed control practices. Since China already easily and regularly arrests bloggers, VPN users, artists, protesters, and other innocents, it can certainly find and disrupt criminal cartels cooking up deadly street drugs for sale in America.
If not, then the U.S. needs to take an even more aggressive stance against China. China’s new opium war, combined with her cyberattacks on American infrastructure and information, is further tearing at the increasingly fragile fabric of American society, institutions, and competitiveness.
Trade imbalances with China gnaw at the president. The trillions that flow one way have underwritten the Chinese economic juggernaut and fueled Communist Party power. American money built a peer competitor to the U.S. Trump maintains that America’s fat trade is now the key to leverage deals with China.
The U.S. regularly uses trade sanctions to punish foreign players or force them to the negotiating table. During Trump’s trip and eventual meeting with freshly super-empowered Xi, he must align America’s regional allies and lay out a tough approach to both North Korea and the drug war being waged against America.
Trump must use his plain talk and pushy style to make clear to Xi that with Chinese fentanyl, America is under attack and a chemical weapons red line is being crossed.
Markos Kounalakis, a senior fellow at Central European University, is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org or @KounalakisM.