President Donald Trump and his advisers are hailing what they called a major promise from Chinese President Xi Jinping to crack down on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid blamed for thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S.
The pledge to enhance cooperation with the U.S. to fight illegal drugs including fentanyl and related substances emerged from a highly anticipated dinner between Trump and Xi on Saturday in Buenos Aires that yielded a truce in the trade war between the two countries.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said afterward in a statement that, as part of the agreement, China will tighten supervision of fentanyl and revise rules on the drug, while enhancing law enforcement work with the U.S.
Trump said that Xi had also agreed to rank fentanyl trafficking among the most serious crimes in China. “Therefore, if they get caught, they have the highest level of punishment,” he said.
“What he will be doing to fentanyl could be a game changer for the United States and what fentanyl is doing to our country in terms of killing people,” Trump told reporters on aboard Air Force One as he left Argentina following the Group of 20 summit.
Trump declared widespread opioid abuse a public health emergency in October 2017 and vowed to use the federal government’s legal powers to pursue companies that help fuel the epidemic. Trump said at the time that he would raise the issue of Chinese fentanyl making its way to the U.S. with Xi as a top priority.
The subject came up at the start of Saturday’s dinner with Xi in the Argentine capital. Trump told reporters in the room that he would raise his concerns that China isn’t doing enough to halt the flow into the U.S. of fentanyl and related chemicals.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids now rank as the deadliest abused drug in the U.S., accounting for almost half of the more than 70,000 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
China is “the largest source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances in the United States,” according to a U.S. commission established by Congress to review the national security implications of relations between the two countries.
Exporters of fentanyl have skirted Chinese laws by shifting to analogues, or molecules that have similar effects on the body, but don’t fall under bans the country has imposed on fentanyl itself, according to a report from the commission released on Nov. 26.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said in its report that Beijing has been slow to add new categories to the list of prohibited substances.