By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will strive to step up cooperation with China to halt the flow of the synthetic opioid fentanyl into the United States, a U.S. counter-narcotics official said ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.
Efforts could include negotiations with China over the 2020 U.S. decision to put China’s Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science on the Commerce Department’s “entity list”, effectively barring it from receiving U.S. exports.
“There’s a number of reasons it was listed. So just un-listing it isn’t going to happen,” Todd Robinson, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at State Department, said in an interview.
“It is a complicated issue. The lab is large, it’s part of a much larger facility and only part of the facility is listed.”
The United States has said the institute was complicit in human rights abuses toward Uyghurs and other Chinese ethnic minorities.
But Robinson said blocking the flow of fentanyl and precursors to the United States and securing China’s cooperation on the issue was a top priority.
“This is an important issue. And it’s an issue I think is very likely going to be raised directly with the Secretary’s Chinese counterpart, PRC (People’s Republic of China) counterpart. And depending on the response, I think everything is on the table in terms of getting some kind of global cooperation on this issue,” Robinson said.
The rate of U.S. drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl more than tripled from 2016 through 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and is increasingly mixed with other illicit drugs often with lethal results. U.S. drug-related overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 in 2021, according to government estimates.
Blinken will travel to China next week for long-delayed talks aimed at stabilizing relations. A trip planned for February was postponed over a dispute involving an alleged Chinese spy balloon.
He will be the highest ranking U.S. government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
In 2022, China’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, called Washington’s decision to sanction the institute “shocking” and said it was a key public institution in fight against fentanyl. Qin Gang is now China’s foreign minister.
Stemming the illicit flow of fentanyl “precursor” chemicals from China has been a priority for Washington but U.S. officials have told Reuters that Chinese counterparts have been reluctant to cooperate.
Robinson said he did not find it “that unusual” that China would seek to extract concessions from Washington in exchange for help on fentanyl.
“But I think that because of the nature of this issue, we’re going to make every effort to get to a better place with the PRC on the precursor chemicals,” he said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Editing by Don Durfee and Angus MacSwan)