China, Fiji and the Fentanyl Scourge

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China, Fiji and the Fentanyl Scourge

Recent sensational revelations show how extensively Fiji has been affected by – and integral to – one of the most sensitive dimensions of China’s rise: the illicit drug trade.

China, Fiji and the Fentanyl Scourge

A barricade blocks the front of the Chinese Embassy in Suva, Fiji, May 27, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Aileen Torres-Bennett

Heightened geopolitical tensions are evident across numerous global pressure points at present, and Fiji is no exception. Since the early 2000s, Fiji has served as a key point of entry for China in its efforts to build influence throughout the Pacific Islands. As the Pacific’s geographic center and the second most populous island nation after Papua New Guinea, Fiji serves as a regional hub where numerous key bodies, like the Pacific Islands Forum, are headquartered. Fiji’s location and hub status are a two-edged sword. As the geopolitical contest has expanded and taken on multiple forms within its borders, Fiji has grappled with its significant impacts for years. 

Recent sensational revelations show how extensively Fiji has been affected by – and integral to – one of the most sensitive dimensions of China’s rise: the illicit drug trade.

China’s central involvement in one dimension of the current illicit drug crisis, the fentanyl scourge, is no longer being quietly alluded to by the U.S. government and its allies. On April 16, 2024, a U.S. Congressional Report unequivocally laid the blame on Beijing for “one of the most horrific disasters that America has ever faced” that is “killing over 200 Americans daily” and is the leading cause of death for Americans aged between 18 and 45. The report stated that “the PRC, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is the ultimate geographic source of the fentanyl crisis.”

Chinese companies produce nearly all fentanyl precursors (97 percent), the report stated, as well as 80 percent of methamphetamine precursors bound for Mexican cartels, which then flood global markets with their devastating merchandise. The report was also explicit about what China stands to gain from its role in the global proliferation of illicit drugs. China’s “actions and omissions are abhorrent, violate the laws of nations, and have led to profound human suffering in the United States and around the world,” which works to “further the PRC’s strategic and economic interests.”

What this detailed and damning report does not include, however, is an acknowledgment that this strategy for geopolitical advantage through a state-sponsored illicit drug trade has worked before with tremendous success. 

The British-backed opium trade was at first a vital means to gain an upper hand in its China trade relations that also served to corrode China from within. It violated China’s laws and with an estimated 10 percent of the Chinese population, or 40 million people, addicted to the drug by 1890, it caused profound human suffering. When Chinese officials acted against the trade, as they famously did in Guangzhou in 1839 by jettisoning opium into the sea, wars with Britain were triggered that devastated China and benefitted multiple European powers and the United States. So began China’s “century of humiliation.”

Britain gained Hong Kong in 1842 as one of the greatest prizes of its military defeat of China, and from that victory, Britain continued to build an era of global dominance that no other power has yet replicated. One hundred and eighty years on, the echoes of this history are unmistakable. President Xi Jinping is, as one report put it, “fixated on ending China’s century of humiliation” if not also avenging it. Once again, illicit drugs play a leading role.

How does this impact the Pacific Islands, and Fiji in particular? In short, substantially. 

The Pacific Islands have long been used by transnational criminals to move illicit cargo into Australia and New Zealand from Asia and the Americas. Fiji, because of its geographic location and its status as a regional hub with considerably more human and transport traffic than possibly anywhere else in the Pacific beyond Hawai’i, has been targeted by drug smugglers for many years. Contrary to its international image as a tourist “paradise,” Fiji has been ravaged by drug traffic. 

As Gavin Butler described the situation in 2022, Fiji “has become collateral damage in a global drug trade as an influx of meth fuels a rise in sex work, poverty, and corruption.”  José Santos Sousa has likewise shown how extensively the Pacific Islands have been used to facilitate the illegal drug trade. 

Since the beginning of 2024, Fiji has seen two massive drug busts that resulted in the seizure of 4.8 tons of meth and 13 people being charged for their role in the import of the drug “that was intended for re-export aboard.” These events underscored the scale of the problem Fiji is facing as a way-station for smugglers eyeing far larger markets to the south that nevertheless leave a trail of harm throughout the Pacific nation.

Other events involving Fiji also highlight the direct role of China in proliferating the illicit trade. In June 2023, two Chinese nationals, Qingzhou Wang and Yiyi Chen, who were expelled from Fiji were then arrested by U.S. authorities in Hawai’i and charged with crimes relating to the possession of 200 kilograms of “fentanyl-related precursor chemicals,” a quantity that could potentially “kill 25 million Americans” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The pair had traveled to Fiji to meet one of their sources, according to a news report

In late March 2024, the stakes in this drug war were raised considerably thanks to several reports in the Australian press that named a leading Suva-based businessman, Zhao Fugang, as a leading international crime figure. Reports on Australia’s 60 Minutes program and in the Sydney Morning Herald directly connected Zhao – who is known as China’s “front man in Fiji,” where he has lived for many years and now holds Fiji citizenship – to the drug trade. Indeed, these reports went to the unusual length of revealing, clearly with permission, that the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission had added Zhao to its registry of Australian Priority Targets in mid-2023 due to his role leading a syndicate allegedly involved in “human trafficking, money laundering, and the large scale flow of drugs into Australia.”

The reaction from the Chinese Embassy in Suva to these reports was swift and strongly worded. Citing its history with opium, the Chinese Embassy stated “if there is one country that abhors drugs the most, that is China.”  It called the claims “lies” and “malicious speculations” with no basis in fact. 

The embassy also addressed another element of Australian media reports, which aired recently discovered footage of a 2017 PRC police operation in Fiji in which Chinese officers arrived on a plane and proceeded to “extract” 77 Chinese nationals, whom they hooded and rounded up onto the plane, all while Fiji’s police force observed from a distance. This footage drew attention to China’s relationship with Fiji’s past Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, under whose leadership from 2006 to 2022, China made huge inroads into Fiji.

It also directed attention to the 2011 policing agreement signed that allowed Chinese officials the extraordinary powers that they exercised in the 2017 operation. The policing agreement’s continued existence, alongside the revelations of international criminal activity, is creating problems for the current Fiji leadership, as evidenced in the 60 Minutes interviews with Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and Fiji’s Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua.

The fallout from what has so far transpired in Fiji is likely to be considerable as it hits on numerous domestic and regional raw nerves. As the U.S. and its allies become more emboldened in holding China to account for the illicit drug trade, the Pacific Islands will also be entangled in the net.