CHINA - Signing an extradition treaty with the United States is essential to China's ongoing efforts to capture and repatriate economic fugitives, a senior security official has said.
Yet experts on both sides said an agreement may be unlikely in the short term, as obstacles and misunderstandings remain over China's judicial system and progress in human rights protection.
According to China's Ministry of Public Security, at least 150 Chinese economic fugitives, many of them corrupt officials, are hiding in the US.
Over the past 10 years, however, just two people wanted on criminal charges have been repatriated.
"We face practical difficulties in getting back fugitives who have escaped to the US due to the lack of an extradition treaty, as well as the complex and lengthy US legal procedures," said Liao Jinrong, director of the ministry's international cooperation bureau.
Some progress has been made in judicial cooperation in recent years, but it has been slow and is still far from enough, he said.
Justice officials from both countries meet every year, in August or September, to discuss major cases, and the ministry says it is attempting to set up an annual high-level meeting, such as with the US Department of Homeland Security, to exchange intelligence with the view to repatriating criminals and recovering illegal assets.
There is a willingness in the US to cooperate, Liao said, "but we hope the US can be more understanding of China's judicial procedures ... and be more active in responding to our request for an extradition treaty, which is essential."
Much of the cooperation between China and the US now is done through Interpol.
Once the organisation issues a red notice, an international arrest warrant for an individual, Chinese police provide information and evidence to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to request assistance with an investigation.
"Once a case goes to the US authorities, they do not disclose details to us because of privacy concerns," said Liao. "Usually it takes several years to get a deportation order, and as long as the criminals pay a lawyer to defend themselves they can constantly appeal to higher courts."
Legal experts agree progress in cooperation is being made, but they flagged several challenges in the relationship that stand in the way of a treaty.
Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an expert on China's legal system, cited the countries' Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement, signed 13 years ago, and the improvement in "informal, ad hoc" exchanges over the past decade as examples that things have moved forward.
"Both countries would benefit from the further progress that an extradition treaty would represent," he said. "But I don't think conditions are ripe yet for meeting this challenge."
The US already has a treaty with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, but reaching the same agreement with the Chinese mainland would require substantial changes to its legal system and human rights policies, he said.