Trump and Xi’s G20 Meeting Is An Opportunity for Self-Reflection

By | 2018-12-05T22:01:15+00:00 December 5th, 2018|
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The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Sun Tzu dictated this truism in The Art of War in the 5th century B.C. Its meaning is deeply imbedded in the Chinese memory and was acutely felt by China leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. Then, British imperialists surreptitiously created an epidemic-level addiction crisis by injecting opium into the Chinese economy in the name of free trade. Now, tens of thousands of Americans die yearly from overdoses of illicit fentanyl, an opioid derivative manufactured in China and distributed throughout America through trading routes that intersect our porous southwestern border.

For many years, the Chinese chemical industry has subverted international standards by innovating around regulations designed to control fentanyl production. International drug enforcement agencies’ futile attempts to amend scientific literature inadvertently have provided a roadmap for unregulated Chinese companies to keep developing novel synthetic opioids and profit from their distribution in America. For the past five years, capitalizing on technically legal workarounds, each new Chinese drug product entering the U.S. market has been less illegal but more lethal.

Despite overwhelming evidence, the Chinese government has repeatedly skirted the fact that most of the United States’ fentanyl originates in China until the G20 Summit last week. In response to President Trump calling out this fact in August 2017, deputy secretary-general of China’s National Narcotics Commission Wei Xiaojun said, “China did not ‘deny or reject’ that some fentanyl produced in China had made its way to the United States.”

In speaking with Vice, Yu Haibin, the agency’s director for precursor chemical control, insinuated that the crisis was demand driven, minimizing China’s role. “It’s hard to blame the crimes and abuses of fentanyl on one country alone,” Yu said. “This is not objective and overly arbitrary. Many states in the U.S. are still legalizing the use of marijuana. These trends certainly contribute to the abuse of fentanyl-type substances.”

What Drives Fentanyl Abuse?
While the drug crisis as we experience it today in America was precipitated by a combination both of demand-side and supply-side factors (a toxic chicken-or-egg combination of cultural malaise and pharmaceutical over-prescription), evidence suggests that the fentanyl crisis is an overwhelmingly supply-side issue. In other words, drug users are not asking for fentanyl. Two demographic indicators suggest that the introduction of fentanyl into the system is not a demand-driven event.

In the first place, overdose by fentanyl is a regionally discrete issue, suggesting that a large supply player is involved. Secondly, fentanyl’s unintentional use far outweighs its intentional use. Deaths by fentanyl are generally deaths by fentanyl-contaminated or fentanyl-adulterated products.

Only when an official Senate investigation proved the veracity of the president’s original claim did officials in China offer to step up cooperation with the United States on the issue. Only when the Chinese economy was jeopardized by tariffs was a formal recognition of the abuses of fentanyl distributors forthcoming.

On November 30, as President Trump and Xi Jinping broke bread at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Xi offered that China would recognize fentanyl as a controlled substance in the context of our ongoing trade war.

In a statement released by the White House, Sarah Sanders said, “Very importantly, President Xi, in a wonderful humanitarian gesture, has agreed to designate Fentanyl as a Controlled Substance, meaning that people selling Fentanyl to the United States will be subject to China’s maximum penalty under the law.”

In positively affirming Xi’s offer, Sanders was being diplomatic. The Trump Administration should resume relations with a “trust but verify” attitude, however. Any nation would be remiss to place complete faith in a “humanitarian gesture” originating from a regime so unflinchingly anti-humanity, especially in the context of trade negotiations.

How Can We Ensure Accountability?
Several questions remain. The maximum penalty under Chinese law for drug trafficking is death. Would the Chinese government kill its own people? Certainly. But would they enforce such measures at the behest and for the benefit of the United States? Moreover, how can the United States verify that the gesture has any substance behind it? Or is this likely to be more of the Chinese government’s typical rhetorical jiu-jitsu?

The politburo’s routine imprisonment of its own people justifies and is justified by the ultimate authority and supremacy of the Chinese government. To kill in the service of the greater Chinese national interest is one thing. To kill on behalf of the American desire for justice is another. Even (perhaps especially) as the Chinese government signals compliance with Western humanitarian values, the U.S. should remain vigilant.

Moving forward, this current opioid crisis requires an honest estimation both of China and of America. Fentanyl’s penetration of the U.S. illicit drug market is a form of surreptitious, unrestricted warfare. In effect, this is a depopulation campaign enacted on those who have lost their livelihoods due to automation, offshoring, and migratory labor. The demoralizing effect of the fentanyl crisis on middle America cannot be overstated.

Widespread addiction and its sister, social dispossession, open America up to domination in the long term. The profiteers of the crisis, both primary and complicit, must be punished according to the severity of their crimes. This moment of recognition is an opportunity. If we fail to follow up, we allow ourselves to be subdued without even fighting. Trump and Xi’s meeting at the G20 Summit will either mark a turning point or another hollow promise floated by the Chinese government in pursuit of its interests. For communists and oriental despots, the ends always justify the means. No matter the true meaning of the moment, which will surely reveal itself over time, it requires energetic attention.

This current opioid crisis is an almost perfect reversal of the conditions leading up to the Opium Wars just two centuries ago. In time, the Chinese learned their lesson. America must take heed of history as well.

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author:

Helen Lamm
Helen Lamm is a scholar of Chinese and American Foreign policy. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wofford College, where she earned degrees in Chinese and history. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Statecraft and International Affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Lamm was a 2015 recipient of the David L. Boren scholarship for critical language study in China and a 2017-2019 recipient of the Louis Dejoy and Aldona Wos Family Foundation scholarship for national security studies at IWP. A former ballerina, her interests include fine arts, fight sports, and French dystopian literature.