How can American law regulate companies outside of American jurisdiction?


The semiconductor industry is lobbying furiously with the Commerce Department to interpret the new rules flexibly. In the worst-case scenario, the Commerce Department would ban all chip sales to Huawei from Taiwan and South Korea. That would cripple a large part of Huawei’s business. A looser interpretation would allow a large volume of products to flow to the Chinese telecommunications giant.

After reading this, it seems that the U.S. is enacting laws that regulates the operations of companies that are outside the U.S. and its jurisdiction. What body or international laws allow the U.S. to do that? I don't understand how international law works.

  • It's the same thing as trade sanctions against Iran or North Korea for behavior that's not specific to anything within the US borders. In this case it's a single company, but that company is largely viewed as a government run and controlled entity, that isn't being operated for purely economic goals. It is, very much, targeted at China. Not saying it's right or wrong, just that this isn't that much of a novel concept. I like examining the twist of it being a company, technically, under sanction, so +1 for giving the opportunity to explore that. Commented May 29, 2020 at 7:52

2 Answers 2


The US cannot directly regulate foreign companies operating outside the US.

The US can indirectly regulate them by punishing US companies that deal with certain foreign companies, or US companies that deal with foreign companies that deal with certain foreign companies. Basically they're saying, "you deal with us or you deal them, make your choice."

And considering the economic power of the US, they can easily discourage foreign companies from dealing with countries like Iran or North Korea. Who would want to be banned from the US market for that? When it comes to China, the choice becomes harder and US influence is lower. China is so significant that nobody would lightly forgo trading with them, even if the US demands it.

Follow-Up: The US has so many global interests that it codified the domestic rules and regulations. In a tinpot dictatorship, one would simply ask El Jefe or the Dear Leader what they want. In the US, one has cabinet officials testifying and certifying how a certain case fits into US laws, and hearings in Congress, and lobbyists trying to influence both. That's because of separation of powers and bureaucratic inertia, I guess ...

  • 1
    Of course, that kind of strength is best wielded sparingly and lightly, because people will remember that you forced their hand... Commented May 29, 2020 at 12:09
  • 5
    Explain to me again the difference between the current POTUS and a tinpot dictator. I didn't understand the it last time somebody tried.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 18:23
  • 3
    @alephzero This answer stated one of the differences. Last paragraph. Regardless of what Trump's mannerisms may imply, the U.S. does not run like a tinpot dictatorship.
    – Brilliand
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 18:26
  • 3
    @alephzero, the difference is that people are free to ignore Trump if he orders something outside his powers.
    – Mark
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 22:01
  • 3
    I have flagged alephzero's comment as harassment and bigotry... he has insulted tinpot's the world around.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 0:27

The U.S. cannot regulate foreign companies doing business in foreign territories. But it can regulate US companies doing business overseas, and it can regulate foreign companies that do business in the US.

Even though most semiconductor manufacturing is done in China, it turns out that a mobile network (and all electronics, really) require lots of different kinds of chips from lots of different companies, and it’s very difficult to build a finished product without using American chip designs. It also turns out to be very difficult to be a globally competitive company without the US as a customer.

Intel, AMD, nVidia, Texas Instruments, Micron, Broadcom, Qualcomm, Cirrus Logic, Analog Devices, Microchip, Atmel, Conexant, and many others are all American semiconductor companies with a stake in the telecommunications market. If the US places an embargo on Huawei, it could impose fines and other punitive measures on US companies that sell to them, and can forbid Huawei’s products from being used in any security-sensitive American infrastructure.

Aside from US companies, the only other nation with as many intellectual property holdings as the US is Japan, and they’re not exactly friendly to Huawei either. Although they don’t call out Huawei specifically, they have banned all telecom equipment that might pose a national security threat (i.e. Chinese companies). Japan is also working to be included in the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, so it wouldn’t be very difficult to get Japan to go along with a Huawei embargo.

So while the US cannot directly enjoin foreign companies from doing business with other foreign countries, it does have the economic clout to get most of the western world on board with such a measure.

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