How to Criticize U.S. Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (Part I)


Photo by Maria Stewart on Unsplash

[This post is based on a lecture delivered at Wuhan University School of Law on October 15, 2023]

China has been critical of U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction. In February, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a report entitled “The U.S. Willful Practice of Long-arm Jurisdiction and its Perils.” In the report, the Ministry complained about U.S. secondary sanctions, the discovery of evidence abroad, the Helms-Burton Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and the use of extraterritorial jurisdiction in criminal cases. The report claimed that U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction has caused “severe harm … to the international political and economic order and the international rule of law.”

There are better and worse ways to criticize U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs report pursues some of the worse ways and neglects some better ones. In this post, I discuss a few of the report’s shortcoming. In a second post (which will follow tomorrow), I discuss stronger arguments that one could make against U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Confusing Extraterritorial Jurisdiction with Personal Jurisdiction

One problem with the report is terminology. The report repeatedly uses the phrase “long-arm jurisdiction” to refer to the extraterritorial application of U.S. law. The United States, the report says, has “expand[ed] the scope of its long-arm jurisdiction to exert disproportionate and unwarranted jurisdiction over extraterritorial persons or entities, enforcing U.S. domestic laws on extraterritorial non-US persons or entities, and wantonly penalizing or threatening foreign companies by exploiting their reliance on dollar-denominated businesses, the U.S. market or U.S. technologies.”

In the United States, however, “long-arm jurisdiction” refers to the exercise of personal jurisdiction over non-resident defendants based on contacts with the forum state. The report seems to recognize this, referring in its second paragraph to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in International Shoe Co. v. Washington (1945) and the requirement of “minimum contacts.” But the report goes on use “long-arm jurisdiction” to refer the extraterritorial application of U.S. law. This is more than an academic quibble. Jurisdiction to prescribe (the authority to make law) and jurisdiction to adjudicate (the authority to apply law) are very different things and are governed by different rules of domestic and international law.

The report’s confusion on this score runs deeper than terminology. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to think that the United States uses the concept of “minimum contacts” to expand the extraterritorial application of U.S. law. The United States “exercises long-arm jurisdiction on the basis of the ‘minimum contacts’ rule, constantly lowering the threshold for application,” the report states. “Even the flimsiest connection with the United States, such as having a branch in the United States, using [the] U.S. dollar for clearing or other financial services, or using the U.S. mail system, constitutes ‘minimum contacts.’”

In fact, the requirement of “minimum contacts” for personal jurisdiction is quite stringent. Moreover, as I have recently noted, this requirement serves to limit the extraterritorial application of U.S. law rather than expand it. When foreign defendants lack minimum contacts with the United States, U.S. courts cannot exercise personal jurisdiction and thus cannot apply U.S. laws extraterritorially even when Congress wants them to. The Helms-Burton Act (one of the laws about which China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs complains) is an example of this. Congress clearly intended its cause of action for trafficking in confiscated property to discourage non-U.S. companies from investing in Cuba. But U.S. courts have been unable to apply the law to foreign companies because they have concluded that those companies lack “minimum contacts” with the United States.

China’s complaint is not against U.S. rules of personal jurisdiction or the requirement of “minimum contacts.” It is rather with the extraterritorial application of U.S. law. Using the phrase “long-arm jurisdiction” confuses the two issues.

Criticizing Extraterritorial Jurisdiction that China Exercises Too

The report also criticizes the United States for applying its law extraterritorially based on effects: “the United States has further developed the ‘effects doctrine,’ meaning that jurisdiction may be exercised whenever an act occurring abroad produces ‘effects’ in the United States, regardless of whether the actor has U.S. citizenship or residency, and regardless of whether the act complies with the law of the place where it occurred.” This is true. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that U.S. antitrust law “applies to foreign conduct that was meant to produce and did in fact produce some substantial effect in the United States.”

But China also applies its law extraterritorially based on effects. China’s Anti-Monopoly Law provides in Article 2 that it applies not only to monopolistic practices in the mainland territory of the People’s Republic of China but also “to monopolistic practices outside the mainland territory of the People’s Republic of China that eliminate or restrict competition in China’s domestic market.” In 2014, China blocked an alliance of three European shipping company because of possible effects on Chinese markets.

China regulates extraterritorially on other bases too. Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterizes the extraterritorial application of U.S. criminal law as “an extreme abuse,” China applies its criminal law extraterritorially on all the bases that the United States employs. The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China asserts jurisdiction based not just on territory (Article 6), but also on effects (Article 6), nationality (Article 7), passive personality (Article 8), the protective principle (Article 8), and universal jurisdiction (Article 9). Each of these bases for jurisdiction to prescribe is consistent with customary international law, and China has the right to extend its criminal law extraterritorially like this. But so does the United States.

In their excellent article Extraterritoriality of Chinese Law: Myths, Realities and the Future, Zhengxin Huo and Man Yip provide a detailed discussion of the extraterritorial application of Chinese law. “China’s messaging to the international community is,” they note, “somewhat confusing: it opposes the US practice of ‘long-arm jurisdiction,’ yet it has decided to build its own legal system of extraterritoriality.” By criticizing the United States for exercising jurisdiction on the same bases that China itself uses, China opens itself to charges of hypocrisy.

Ignoring Constraints on U.S. Extraterritoriality

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs report also ignores important constraints on the extraterritorial application of U.S. law. It says the United States has “developed a massive, mutually reinforcing and interlocking legal system for long-arm jurisdiction” and has “put in place a whole-of-government system to practice long-arm jurisdiction.”

In fact, U.S. courts limit the extraterritorial application of U.S. law in significant ways. First, as noted above, U.S. rules on personal jurisdiction (including “minimum contacts”) limit the practical ability of the United States to apply its laws abroad. As I have written before, “Congress cannot effectively extend its laws extraterritorially if courts lack personal jurisdiction to apply those laws.”

Second, U.S. courts apply a presumption against extraterritoriality to limit the reach of federal statutes. Most recently, in Abitron Austria GmbH v. Hectronic International, Inc. (2023), the Supreme Court held that federal statutes should be presumed to apply only to conduct in the United States unless those statutes clearly indicate that they apply extraterritorially. At issue in Abitron was the federal trademark statute, which prohibits use of a U.S. trademark that is likely to cause confusion in the United States. The defendants put U.S. trademarks on products in Europe, some of which were ultimately sold to the United States. The dissent argued that the statute should apply to foreign conduct as long as the focus of Congress’s concern—consumer confusion—occurred in the United States. But the majority disagreed, holding that there must also be conduct in the United States. As I have noted previously, this version of the presumption has the potential to frustrate congressional intent when Congress focuses on something other than conduct.

Third, some lower courts in the United States impose additional limits on the extraterritorial application of U.S. law when foreign conduct is compelled by foreign law. In 2005, U.S. buyers sued Chinese sellers of vitamin C for fixing the prices of vitamins sold to the United States. The U.S. court found the Chinese sellers liable for violating U.S. antitrust law and awarded $147 million in damages. Although the anticompetitive conduct occurred in China, it had effects in the United States because vitamins were sold at higher than market prices in the United States.

The Chinese companies appealed, arguing that they were required by Chinese law to agree on export prices. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the question of how much deference to give the Chinese government’s interpretation of its own law. Ultimately, in 2021, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Chinese law did indeed require the anticompetitive conduct and that the case should therefore be dismissed on grounds of international comity because China had a stronger interest in applying its law than the United States did. This is a remarkable decision. Although Congress clearly intended U.S. antitrust law to apply to foreign conduct that causes anticompetitive effects in the United States, and although applying U.S. law based on effects would not violate international law, the U.S. court held that the case should be dismissed in deference to Chinese law.

To be clear, I disagree with these constraints on the extraterritorial application of U.S. laws. I think Congress should have more authority to define rules of personal jurisdiction, particularly when it wants its laws to apply outside the United States. I disagree with Abitron’s conduct-based version of the presumption against extraterritoriality. And I filed two separate amicus briefs (with Paul Stephan) urging the Supreme Court to take up the international comity question and make clear that lower courts have no authority to dismiss claims like those in Vitamin C that fall within the scope of U.S. antitrust law. But whether these constraints are wise or not, ignoring them provides a distorted picture of U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Weak Examples

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also weakens its case by relying on examples that do not support its arguments. The report singles out the indictment of French executive Frédéric Pierucci for violating the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a story he recounts in his 2019 book The American Trap. Here is how the report describes what happened:

In 2013, in order to beat Alstom in their business competition, the United States applied the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to arrest and detain Frédéric Pierucci on charges of bribing foreign officials. He was further induced to sign a plea deal and provide more evidence and information against his company, leaving Alstom no choice but to accept General Electric’s acquisition, vanishing ever since from the Fortune 500 list. The U.S. long-arm jurisdiction has become a tool for its public power to suppress competitors and meddle in normal international business activities, announcing the United States’ complete departure from its long-standing self-proclaimed champion of liberal market economy.

I have read Pierucci’s book, and his story is harrowing. But the book does not show what the report claims.

First, and perhaps most significantly, application of the FCPA in this case was not extraterritorial. Pierucci was indicted for approving bribes paid to Indonesian officials to secure a contract for Alstrom from his office in Windsor, Connecticut (p. 65). He seems to acknowledge that the bribes violated the FCPA but counters that the statute was “very poorly enforced” at the time (p. 67) and that he “received no personal gain whatsoever” (p. 71). These are not valid defenses under U.S. law.

Second, Pierucci was not arrested to facilitate GE’s acquisition of Alstom. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began investigating Alstom’s payment of bribes in late 2009 (p. 54), and Pierucci was arrested in April 2013 (p. 1). Alstom’s takeover discussions with GE began during the summer of 2013 (p. 162), and the deal was made public in April 2014 (p. 155). Pierucci plausibly claims that GE took advantage of Alstom’s weakened position, noting that “Alstom is the fifth company to be swallowed up by GE after being accused of corruption by the DOJ” (p. 164). But I saw no claim in the book that DOJ’s investigation of Alstom was intended to bring about its acquisition by a U.S. competitor.

Finally, it is hard to credit the report’s assertion that prosecuting bribery constitutes “meddl[ing] in normal international business activities.” China has joined the U.N. Convention Against Corruption. In 2014, China fined British company GlaxoSmithKline 3 billion yuan (U.S.$489 million) for bribing Chinese doctors. Earlier this year, China launched an unprecedented campaign against corruption in its health care industry. And, of course, fighting corruption remains a top priority of President Xi Jinping.


Perhaps it seems unfair to criticize a report from a foreign ministry for making mistakes about law. Perhaps the report should be seen merely as a political document. But the report itself discusses legal matters in detail and charges the United States with “violat[ing] international law.” Whether the report is a political document or not, the shortcomings that I have discussed here weaken its credibility and undermine its arguments.

There are better ways to criticize U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction. Tomorrow, in Part II of this post, I will offer some examples.