China also has a huge population of 1.3 billion people, many of whom are rapidly gaining in wealth as the economy continues to expand. Put the two factors together -- proximity and purchasing power -- and it is easy to see why drug lords are eager to tap into China.
According to official figures, China has close to 700,000 heroin addicts and officials fear that problem is only set to grow.
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua quotes Deputy Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng as telling parliament recently that China now faces a "grave situation" in drugs control. Zhang claims drugs are "pouring" into China, posing a great threat to the population.
Drug Traffickers Looking For Opportunities
Niklas Swanstroem, director of the Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University in Sweden, says drug smugglers tend to use those areas where central authority is weak because of conflict or unrest.
He says the troubled Uyghur autonomous region in Western China (Xinjiang Province) is one such area. The Uyghurs are a Muslim people, and their remote territory is the scene of an intermittently active separatist movement.
"Here we have a minority group with very little financial viability within China, and it is easy for them with their connections in Central Asia to transport drugs," Swanstroem says.
The main volume of drugs on this route is thought to come from Afghanistan through Tajikistan into China. Transport is made easier by corrupt border guards and inadequate policing.
The Center Of The Web
Central Asia has become the major transit center for narcotics flowing east into China, north into Russia, and west and south into Iran. At the center of this web sits Afghanistan, the biggest producer of opiates in the world.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates Afghanistan's 2005 production of opium to be over 4,000 tons -- worth about $2.7 billion. And it is estimated that in 2006 the area under poppy cultivation has increased by another 40 percent.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in Kabul on August 22 that terrorism is no longer the most deadly threat facing the country -- poppy cultivation is.
The Golden Triangle
China is also being targeted by drug smugglers operating from the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Swanstroem says along the China-Myanmar border there is also a pattern of activity by ethnic minorities.
"The [ethnic] minorities that actually have the connections to the Chinese border regions in Yunnan in particular are often heavily involved in drug trafficking, simply because they have the networks, [and] they have the links already established," he says.
In an effort to bring the situation on the Myanmar frontier under control, China has increased cooperation with authorities there and is training Myanmar police in narcotics-detection methods.
A Tough New Law
Xinhua reports that the draft law now under discussion in Beijing would allow police to search travelers and their luggage not only at border crossings, but also at railway stations, long-distance bus depots, and other places. A vote on the bill is expected on August 27.
Noting the progress made in Sino-Myanmar cooperation, Swanstroem calls for more large-scale international cooperation among countries that are the end markets or key transit points for the vast flow of drugs originating in Afghanistan.
"International cooperation in general is absent, and I think that Europe and China, which are two important markets for Afghan drugs for example, really need to work together, and probably Iran too, which is fighting a virtual war against narcotics, with mixed success," Swanstroem says.
For its part, China says it arrested almost 60,000 people in 2005 in narcotics-related cases.
Iran's Drug Problem
READDRUG USE ON THE RISE: The Iranian approach to drug control is very relevant to the rest of the world, because Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan, is the world's leading producer of opium. Iran leads the international community in global opium seizure rates and it is second to Pakistan in opiate seizures, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Iran also leads the world in the prevalence of drug abuse (2.8 percent of the population aged 15 or older), according to the UNODC.(more)
SUBSCRIBE: For weekly news and analysis on Iran by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Iran Report."