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U.S. officials are in China to discuss cooperating on fighting fentanyl

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senior Biden administration officials are in China today and tomorrow launching a new round of discussions on cooperation in counternarcotics. In particular, they want to fight fentanyl. China has been the main source of precursor chemicals that are used to make this opioid, and President Biden has made fighting fentanyl a policy priority. NPR's John Ruwitch is in Shanghai and following all of this. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Given the bad relations generally, what could come out of this meeting?

RUWITCH: Yeah, these talks are just a starting point, you know? China has expressed some political will on the issue, though, and cooperation on this front can have some effect. We know that because China was the source of actual finished fentanyl before. And in 2018 Xi Jinping, the leader of China, promised then President Trump that he'd stop the flow of fentanyl. Within a few months, Beijing banned all the various forms of fentanyl by listing them as controlled substances. What happened is the market shifted, though, to sourcing the precursors for fentanyl from China, which are then sent to Mexico, where they're made into fentanyl and smuggled across the border.

The question now, though, is how far the Chinese government wants to go, right? I mean, the bilateral relationship is a lot more complicated than it was in 2018. And Vanda Felbab-Brown at the Brookings Institution says counternarcotics is just one piece of it.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN: My expectation is not that China will move to, like, 100% perfect collaboration that's insulated from politics and the geostrategic relationship. But I would also be surprised if in 2024, absent some new major crisis, China went back to zero.

INSKEEP: OK, so she's expecting, you know, 30% cooperation, 50%, 70%, something like that.

RUWITCH: Right.

INSKEEP: But what's in it for China to cooperate at all?

RUWITCH: Well, a few things. You know, Beijing has decided that it wants stability in the relationship with the U.S., you know, even if they believe there will be tensions going forward and that they're going to be a feature of the relationship, even given the mistrust in the relationship. You know, the Chinese economy is not doing well. There are also sources of instability elsewhere in the world. A Chinese official at the start of these talks said the relationship gains from cooperation and loses from confrontation. You know, analysts are also saying that Beijing wants to be seen as a constructive force, particularly on this issue, that it takes illicit drugs seriously. And officials here reference China's own bitter experience with drugs, in particular the opium wars of the late 19th century.

INSKEEP: Oh, this was a time when opium was being shipped into China, and they tried to stop the U.K. from doing that...

RUWITCH: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...Had to fight a war and lost the war. Can you put this in a larger context for us? Aren't there more efforts, broader efforts between the U.S. and China to be talking?

RUWITCH: Yeah, there are. You know, this comes out of the meeting between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November, when they met in California on the sidelines of an APEC meeting. The counternarcotics cooperation actually has been a feature of U.S.-China relations going back decades. It broke down as relations between the two countries worsened in recent years, but it's put back on the agenda. It's a priority for Biden as the death toll has soared. There's also other dialogues that are now ramping back up, in particular, military-to-military is one. So it's part of this broader picture of relations getting back on track.

INSKEEP: So on fentanyl, what can China specifically do?

RUWITCH: Well, you know, China has already put companies on notice that they - those that are exporting certain precursors. It's taken other small steps. It's a supply side fix that they're looking at here. China is not the only seller of precursors, others can do it, like India. And experts say the cartels in Mexico are probably going to evolve and adapt. One thing that may come out of this, though, is a deeper - this deeper cooperation is a better understanding of the networks where these drugs are made, how they're made in Mexico. And perhaps they can eventually be squeezed at that point in the supply chain.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch in Shanghai. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.