Earlier, President Duterte announced that he would ask his counterpart in China during his state visit there this week why so many Chinese nationals are involved in the drug trade in the Philippines. As Duterte’s war on drugs continues to unravel Chinese links in the overall drug trade, more and more people are speculating about whether Beijing has been waging a form of state-sponsored “drug warfare” aimed at the Philippines, its main rival in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) disputes. In this scenario, the Beijing politburo has been deploying an unconventional warfare strategy by clandestinely pumping drugs into the country as a means of destabilizing its adversary. Drug warfare is thought to form part of a “culture warfare,” a broader penumbra, aimed at corrupting the moral fabric of a rival nation and weakening its human resource base. Some accounts go so far as to cite the counsel of Sun Tzu no less, as basis for this unconventional strategy.
As of this year, China’s illegal drug market is dominated by heroin, ketamine, methamphetamine, and other amphetamines. In 2015, Sichuan and Guangdong were reported to be the primary domestic sources for methamphetamine and ketamine. The three major drug epicenters are Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian. There are no signs of this market abating. Aside from these drugs, no less than a United Nations report singles out China for becoming the leading supplier of a dramatically new universe of synthetic drugs, whose rapid evolution outpaces domestic criminal statutes everywhere. Synthetic drugs include crystal methamphetamine and ketamine, the current demand for which has overtaken heroin. Due to their novelty, synthetic drugs have always been one step ahead of international law enforcement. A driver for this market is the fact that China is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and chemical components for medicinal drugs, which happen to share many common ingredients for recreational drugs. Recent reports point to China as the fastest growing wholesaler of new synthetic drugs to Europe as well.
While illegal drug trafficking is publicly stigmatized in China and warrants the death penalty no less, Beijing has not taken significant strides in eradicating illegal drugs to the same extent it has with, say, building defense capacity. What is more, Beijing continues to turn a blind eye to what many US officials say is North Korea’s state-sponsored methamphetamine trafficking, subordinating any counter-narcotics drive to the need for maintaining cordial political relationships with Pyongyang. It is well reported that most methamphetamines produced in North Korea are trafficked into the northeastern regions of China, then to Shandong, Tianjin, Beijing, and other interior provinces, and then spilling out to China’s neighbors, such as South Korea and Japan. Lately, countries such as New Zealand and Australia have seized methamphetamine shipments from China, some of which have turned out to be the largest cases of seized drugs in their respective histories.
Can we say that the illegal drug trade flowing out of China and into the Philippines is something that is being state-sponsored by a shadow politburo in Beijing? Why is China the number one source of methamphetamine in the Philippines and why have there been so many Chinese nationals caught by Philippine authorities in the war against drugs?
There may be a basis in singling out corrupt practices among Chinese government officials who are involved in cross-border syndication, but the case seems far from any systematic or programmatic drive aimed at weakening whole societies comprising Beijing’s rivals elsewhere. Accusations of state-sponsored “drug warfare” or “cultural warfare” against the Philippines seem overrated, given the international scrutiny China itself has received in the conduct of its own anti-drug campaign. That said, Beijing should at the very least accept responsibility from the damage brought about by its disproportionately lackluster interdiction efforts compared to the magnitude of China’s drug problems.
Regardless of whether Beijing chooses to reform its counter-narcotics law enforcement, Chinese officials should strengthen international cooperation, leverage upon media and pop culture in its own anti-drug campaign, insulate its interdiction efforts from politics, and deploy both supply and demand-driven approaches in the eradication of an increasingly globalized narcotics market traceable to the successes of its own pharmaceutical industry no less.
And because North Korea has been tagged as a significant source of methamphetamine, it will be crucial for Beijing to establish more effective interdiction measures with Pyongyang. If it is true that North Korea’s drug trade is state-sponsored, it will be in China’s long-term interest to drop its appeasement policy toward Pyongyang and begin calling a spade a spade. If it is true that Chinese authorities haven’t been doing enough to stem the flow of methamphetamines into the Philippine market, which is a youth market, then it would do well for Philippine authorities to call this out, denounce it for what it is, and take necessary diplomatic action. President Duterte should take this step and make the right noises while he is still in China.
Edsel Tupaz is a public interest attorney and legal academic. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School.