American and Chinese officials committed on Tuesday to working together to stem the flow of fentanyl into the United States, the head of a visiting US delegation said.
Their meeting was a hopeful sign of co-operation as the two global powers try to better manage their contentious ties.
The US is seeking more information sharing and law enforcement co-operation on the designation and control of made-in-China chemicals that are ingredients for fentanyl made elsewhere, said Jen Daskal, a deputy homeland security adviser in the White House.
“Obviously we need to see the results and we need to see action,” she said after the meeting. “But there was a real spirit of co-operation and a commitment to working together.”
The first meeting of a new US-China counternarcotics working group will be followed by more in-depth meetings in smaller groups on Wednesday.
Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is ravaging America, is a major focus, and in particular the ingredients and pill presses for the drug that come from China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to restart co-operation in drug trafficking and a handful of other areas when he and US President Joe Biden met outside San Francisco in November.
The agreements were a small step forward in a relationship strained by major differences on issues ranging from trade and technology to Taiwan and human rights.
The US wants China to do more to curb the export of chemicals that it says are processed into fentanyl, largely in Mexico, before the final product is smuggled into the US.
Chinese public security minister Wang Xiaohong said the two sides had in-depth and pragmatic talks.
“We reached common understanding on the work plan for the working group,” he said at a ceremony marking the inauguration of the group.
Ms Daskal said that Mr Biden had sent a high-level delegation “to underscore the importance of this issue to the American people”.
She said there have been some drops in shipments of fentanyl “precursors” from China since the Biden-Xi meeting and stressed the importance of information sharing to identify trends and keep up with fentanyl producers who come up with substitutes when supplies of a particular ingredient dry up.
“There’s a real sense of urgency,” she said, noting the high number of fentanyl-related fatalities in the US and the violence, corruption and instability fuelled by drug cartels around the world.
China used to be a major supplier of fentanyl, and the US has credited Beijing for a 2019 crackdown that led to “a drastic reduction in seizures of fentanyl shipments … from China”.
Synthetic opioids are the biggest killers in the deadliest drug crisis the US has ever seen. More than 100,000 deaths were linked to drug overdoses in 2022, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. More than two-thirds involved fentanyl or similar synthetic drugs.
China had previously rebuffed US appeals for help as relations between the two global powers deteriorated, often responding that the US should look inward to solve its domestic problems and not blame them on China.
Talks were formally put on ice in 2022, when China suspended co-operation in several areas including narcotics to protest a visit to Taiwan by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The ice began to thaw in the lead-up to the Biden-Xi meeting in November 2023. A US Senate delegation pressed the fentanyl issue on a visit to Beijing in October and said that Chinese officials expressed sympathy for the victims of America’s opioid crisis.
But China refused to discuss co-operation unless the US lifted sanctions on the Public Security Ministry’s Institute of Forensic Science. The Commerce Department had imposed the sanctions in 2020, accusing the institute complicity in human rights violations against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang region.
The US quietly agreed to lift the sanctions to get co-operation on fentanyl. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi acknowledged “the removal of the obstacle of unilateral sanctions” in a speech on China-US relations earlier this month.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called it “an appropriate step to take” given what China was willing to do on the trafficking of fentanyl precursors.