UNCATEGORIZED Southeast Asia has a synthetic drug problem, China has key stake in fixing it.


Beijing has gained momentum in its bid for regional dominance in Southeast Asia. Fuelled by notions of Chinese largesse, high-tech industrial and infrastructure development, and an ongoing surge of tactical investments pouring into the region in recent years, it is no wonder that attitudes toward China in some countries are shifting. Yet not everyone is convinced. In fact, when it comes to contributing to global peace, security, and governance, China faces a trust deficit in its own backyard.[1] From allegations of Chinese ‘debt-trap diplomacy’[2] in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos to a series of ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, justifications for Southeast Asia’s mounting distrust with China are in no short supply. Adding to this is the region’s escalating battle against synthetic drugs. While the world has shifted its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, the illicit production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals in Southeast Asia continues at record levels. With an estimated market size of over US$61 billion, seizures of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs in the region have increased year-on-year over the last decade, turning record-breaking busts into the new norm while drug prices hit historic lows – and much of this points to China.

Representing what is believed to be the world’s leading methamphetamine producing region, the highly unregulated, militia-controlled borderlands of the Golden Triangle[3] are largely dependent on a steady supply of diverse precursor chemicals from China, and to a lesser extent India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam.[4] Most recently, in May 2020 the Myanmar police announced an unprecedented series of seizures totaling more than 193 million methamphetamine tablets, 440 kg of crystalline methamphetamine, a possible 3,700 litres of methylfentanyl, and almost 163,000 litres and 35.5 tonnes of precursor chemicals in what is now confirmed as Asia’s biggest-ever drug bust. While top officials maintain that the chemicals seized had originated from an unconfirmed neighbouring country, Myanmar police documents reviewed by Reuters suggest that most of the seized drugs, precursors, and equipment had come from China.[5] This, however, is no smoking gun. On the contrary, China has more chemical-producing factories than anywhere else on Earth and, despite its clear effort to curb illicit outflows, has long been marked as a source country from which large volumes of precursor chemicals are shipped to foreign drug markets for synthetic drug production. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in northern Myanmar.

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