Volume 94, Number 6

December 2019

The Past, Present, and Future of United States-China Mutual Legal Assistance

Loren M. Scolaro

The Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement (MLAA) between the United States and China, effective since the late 1990s, reflects the development of cooperative law enforcement between the two countries. Study of transnational law enforcement between the United States and China and use of the MLAA has been limited because of the few notable cases and a lack of transparency. This Note will attempt to fill some of the gaps in the academic literature. 

The MLAA, which is unique among mutual legal assistance mechanisms the United States has with other states, arose out of a rocky history of trying to meld two countries’ values and interests. In practice, both prosecution and defense attorneys have noted the MLAA’s limitations. Its provisions lack the accountability of other international agreements, and both the United States and China have taken steps towards unilateral investigation and prosecution of transnational crimes where American and Chinese interests diverge. While both countries have paid lip service to continuing the MLAA, there is no external enforcement, oversight, or incentive to increase cooperation. If the MLAA remains in its current form indefinitely, it is not likely to facilitate a stronger joint law enforcement relationship. Formalizing the MLAA as a treaty could demonstrate a deeper commitment to cooperation, but the current state of relations between the United States and China makes this step politically unfeasible.