The effort by President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping to hit a diplomatic reset largely overshadowed last week’s Asia-Pacific summit in San Francisco. But there was encouraging progress on another front, as the two presidents joined their counterpart from Mexico in pledging a new front against illicit fentanyl trafficking. This hardly resolves broader concerns about China’s territorial ambitions or the border crossings from Mexico, but it’s a welcome opportunity to address a national security and public health threat.
The presidents met for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, where Biden and Xi sought to tone down the sparring over Taiwan and the South China Sea. The two sides made some diplomatic progress, such as agreeing to resume military-to-military communications, which is essential for avoiding an unintended crisis. But together with a separate commitment from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the three countries pledged a new front against a runaway scourge that is wreaking havoc on families and communities.
Opioids are the main driver of the approximately 107,000 drug overdose deaths annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than two-thirds of those deaths — more than 200 per day — involve fentanyl or similar synthetic drugs. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. The number of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2021 was nearly 23 times the number in 2013.
These powerful drugs show up in different places in the nation’s illicit supply chain, from counterfeit pills to cocaine. Fentanyl contamination of illegal drugs is also a growing concern, in some cases causing an overdose death among people who are unaware their drugs include this deadly additive.
Getting Mexico and China on board with any crackdown is vital. Mexico and China are the primary sources for synthetic fentanyl trafficked into the U.S. Nearly all the chemicals needed to produce it come from China; the drugs are then mass-produced in Mexico and carried by drug cartels into the U.S.
On Nov. 15, China agreed to stem the export of items related to the production of fentanyl, vowing to go after chemical companies that make drug precursors. The U.S. and Mexico discussed ways to expand law enforcement, slow down production and dismantle the transnational criminal groups that carry drugs across the border. “This is a matter of humanism. It’s an act of solidarity,” López Obrador said before meeting Friday with Biden, committing Mexico to work with the U.S. and other nations to block “the entrance of fentanyl and other chemical precursors.”
China and Mexico need to convert these agreements from paper to practice. And they’re no substitute for broader agreements on security in the Pacific and immigration reform. But the opioid epidemic is taking an incredible toll on the country. While America must do more itself — more substance abuse intervention, better enforcement — China and Mexico are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference. The agreements last week should draw bipartisan support for making progress on China and the southern border however we can.
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