Asia, International Drug Trafficking, and U.S.-China Counternarcotics Cooperation

Yong-an Zhang


The end of the Cold War may have heralded an end to certain tensions, but among other unforeseen effects it also precipitated a significant increase in the flow of illegal drugs across traditional national boundaries. International travel has become easier in an increasingly borderless world, and―although international drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have never respected national boundaries―newly globalized markets for drug production and exportation, along with changing patterns of consumption in some societies, have had an enormous impact on drug trafficking. In short, the global market for illicit drugs, and the capacity of providers to deliver to this market, is expanding inexorably around the world. What was once called “the American disease”[1] has become a global one. [2]

The international community first took an interest in the Asian drug trade at the beginning of the 20th century. The Shanghai Opium Commission in 1909 was the first attempt at regulating drug trade in the region, as countries including the United States, Great Britain, China, Japan, and Russia convened to discuss the growing trafficking of opium. Since then, numerous measures have been adopted by individual countries and collectively to curb the illegal drug trade. This has been especially true since the launch of the “war on drugs.” In spite of these enhanced efforts, the global opiate market has nevertheless exhibited increased growth since 1980. Data gathered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicate global opium production increased by close to 80 percent between 1998 and 2009. The UNODC reports that nearly all of the world’s illicit opium and heroin production is concentrated in “Afghanistan, South-East Asia (mostly Myanmar) and Latin America (Mexico and Colombia). Afghanistan stands out among this group, accounting for around 90 percent of global illicit opium production in recent years.” Upwards of 90 percent of the global heroin and morphine production is provided by Afghanistan and Myanmar. Clearly, the global opiate market has neither been eliminated nor significantly reduced since 1998.[3]

Asian drug trafficking remains a serious threat to both China and the United States. In order to confront this common threat, since 1985 China and the United States have taken numerous steps to cooperate in the interdiction of cross-border drug trafficking. Together, they have made outstanding achievements in the prevention of Asian drug trafficking and in the eradication of opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle region that comprises parts of Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Bilateral cooperation, however, has not been wholly successful, and Beijing and Washington face a daunting set of challenges regarding cross-border drug trafficking. The two nations must reconsider both new and old challenges in both regional and global contexts in their efforts to promote counternarcotics cooperation.

This paper will assess the various threats and challenges that China and the United States face from international Asian drug trafficking. It will examine the historical roots of counternarcotics cooperation between China and the United States, will analyze the limits of this bilateral cooperation, and will provide policy recommendations for the two governments on how to better confront these threats.

[1] David F. Musto, American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control, Oxford University Press, 1999.

[2] Paul B. Stares, Global Habit: The Drug Problem in a Borderless World, Brookings Institution, 1996.

[3] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2010, Vol. 1, New York: United Nations, 2010, p. 37.