China Cases Insight™ No. 5: Through Siemens v. Golden Landmark, China Reforms Arbitration for Free Trade Zones in Order to Prepare for “Belt & Road”

China Cases Insight™ No. 5: Through Siemens v. Golden Landmark, China Reforms Arbitration for Free Trade Zones in Order to Prepare for “Belt & Road”

Date of Publication:
2018/06/15
Author(s):
  • Tereza Gao, Winner of the China Guiding Cases Project’s 2017 China Cases Insights™ Writing Contest; Registered Foreign Lawyer (New York), DLA Piper (Hong Kong). |
  • Edison Li, Winner of the China Guiding Cases Project’s 2017 China Cases Insights™ Writing Contest; Registered Foreign Lawyer (PRC), DLA Piper (Hong Kong)

Commentary

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China Cases InsightsTM aims at providing legal and business professionals with concise and practical information, as well as insightful analyses and indispensable takeaways, about cases in or related to China to help these professionals in their practice of law and business.

 


THE TAKEAWAY

In Belt & Road (“B&R”) Typical Case 12 (“TC12”), Siemens v. Golden Landmark, [1] the Supreme People’s Court’s (the “SPC”) explanation of the significance of the case to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (the “BRI”) is unclear. A review of the SPC’s pre- and post-TC12 actions reveals that the liberal interpretation of the term “foreign-related civil relationship” in the case (resulting in an unprecedented enforcement of a foreign arbitral award involving legal persons of China located in a free trade zone (an “FTZ”)) is part of a bigger plan to develop a sound B&R dispute resolution mechanism. Given the importance of FTZs to the BRI, reforms in these zones are probably bellwethers for how the mechanism will evolve, and practitioners interested in B&R projects should follow these reforms closely.

THE RUNDOWN

Belt & Road (“B&R”) Typical Case 12 (“TC12”), Siemens International Trading (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. and Shanghai Golden Landmark Company Limited, A Case of an Application for the Recognition and Enforcement of a Foreign Arbitral Award (“Siemens v. Golden Landmark”), is a brief summary of the civil ruling rendered by the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court of Shanghai Municipality (the “Shanghai IPC”) on November 27, 2015. [2] The dispute involved in the case arose out of a contract for the supply of goods between Siemens International Trading (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. (“Siemens”) and Shanghai Golden Landmark Company Limited (“Golden Landmark”), two wholly foreign-owned enterprises (“WFOEs”) registered in the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone (an “FTZ”).  The contract was governed by PRC law and stipulated that the parties had to submit any disputes to arbitration before the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (“SIAC”).

On September 21, 2007, Golden Landmark initiated arbitration proceedings at SIAC, requesting that an award be made to rescind the contract and to stop its obligations to pay for the goods.  After an unsuccessful challenge to the arbitral tribunal’s jurisdiction, Siemens brought a counterclaim, demanding payment for all of the goods, for interest, and for compensation for other losses.  In 2011, SIAC rendered an arbitral award rejecting Golden Landmark’s arbitration claim and supporting Siemens’s arbitration counterclaim.

When Golden Landmark failed to fully perform its obligations under the award, Siemens sought recognition and enforcement of the award before the Shanghai IPC.  Golden Landmark raised an objection, alleging that the parties’ agreement to submit disputes to a foreign arbitration institution for arbitration was invalid because the contractual relationship at issue lacked foreign-related elements.  Golden Landmark relied on the fact that both parties were legal persons of China and the place for the performance of the contract was within China.

After reporting the case level by level within China’s court system to reach the Supreme People’s Court (the “SPC”) and receiving the highest court’s guidance via a formal reply issued in October 2015 (the “Reply”), [3] the Shanghai IPC followed the SPC’s reasoning (see below) and rendered a groundbreaking ruling in November 2015 to recognize and enforce the arbitral award.  The ruling was further summarized and re-issued as TC12 by the SPC in May 2017 to provide courts in mainland China (“people’s courts”) with guidance on how to handle similar subsequent cases.

THE BREAKDOWN

The SPC took a new position in Siemens v. Golden Landmark.  How is it different from the SPC’s prior position?  More importantly, what drove the SPC to change its position?

SPC’s Restrictive Approach before Siemens v. Golden Landmark

Before Siemens v. Golden Landmark, the SPC adopted a restrictive approach to handling issues regarding “foreign” arbitration of disputes between two legal persons of China.  The restrictive approach is best explained by the SPC’s reply, issued in August 2012, to the request for instructions made by the High People’s Court of Jiangsu Province: [4]

[…] the parties prepared, in the Trade Agreement, an arbitration clause stipulating that related disputes could be submitted to the International Chamber of Commerce in Beijing for arbitration. The two parties who entered into the Trade Agreement are legal persons of China, the subject-matter was in China, and the agreement was entered into and was to be performed in China. There are no elements constituting a foreign-related civil relationship. The agreement is not a type of foreign-related contract.

As the jurisdiction of arbitration is a power conferred by law and our country’s law does not provide that parties may submit their disputes without foreign-related elements to overseas arbitration institutions or ad hoc arbitration outside the territory of China, there was no legal basis for the parties in this case to agree to submit related disputes to the International Chamber of Commerce for arbitration. [We] agree with your court’s review opinion determining that the arbitration agreement is invalid. (emphasis added)

In December 2012, four months after the issuance of the above-mentioned reply, the SPC passed the Interpretation (I) of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Concerning the Application of the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Laws Applicable to Foreign-Related Civil Relationships” (the “Interpretation (I)”), in which four circumstances under which a contractual relationship can be determined to be a foreign-related civil relationship were provided for.  This list of four circumstances ends with the phrase “other circumstances under which [the civil relationship] may be determined to be a foreign-related civil relationship” (the to provide for four circumstances, under which a contractual relationship can be determined to be a foreign-related civil relationship.  This list of four circumstances ends with the phrase “other circumstances under which [the civil relationship] may be determined to be a foreign-related civil relationship” (the “‘other circumstances’ criterion of the Interpretation (I)”) [5] (see Sidebar).  Since then, people’s courts have followed these five criteria to determine the nature of a civil relationship.  In cases where a foreign arbitral award was issued to resolve a dispute arising from a civil relationship that lacked “foreign-related” elements, people’s courts generally refuse to recognize and enforce the award on the basis of two provisions of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “New York Convention”): [6] (i) that there is no valid arbitration agreement between the parties (Article V(1)(a)) or (ii) that “the recognition or enforcement of the award would be contrary to the public policy” of China (Article V(2)(b)).

China Cases <em>Insight</em> No. 5: Through Siemens v. Golden Landmark, China Reforms Arbitration for Free Trade Zones in Order to Prepare for “Belt & Road”

SPC’s Liberal Interpretation of “Foreign-Related Civil Relationship”

In Siemens v. Golden Landmark, the SPC changed its position to one that led to an unprecedented enforcement of an arbitral award concerning a dispute that would otherwise have been considered “domestic”.  Although Siemens and Golden Landmark were legal persons of China, the subject-matter was in China, and the agreement was entered into and expected to be performed in China, the SPC, as explained in the Reply, relied on the “other circumstances” criterion of the Interpretation (I) to determine that there was a foreign-related civil relationship.  In the Reply, the SPC pointed out, inter alia, some circumstances that distinguished this case from typical “domestic” cases: the case took place in an FTZ, the two companies were WFOEs and had participated in the entire arbitration proceeding, and Golden Landmark had partially performed its obligations under the arbitral award.

The Reply, however, is brief.  TC12 is a better source for understanding the SPC’s reasoning because it was prepared by the SPC to summarize the ruling rendered by the Shanghai IPC, which was obligated to follow the SPC’s instructions.  As stated in TC12, the civil relationship at issue was determined to be “foreign-related” for two reasons: (1) Siemens and Golden Landmark were WFOEs registered in an FTZ and had close relationships with their investors outside China; and (2) “the characteristics of the performance” of the supply of goods contract had foreign-related elements because “the course of circulation of the subject-matter of the contract also had certain characteristics of an international sale and purchase of goods”: the goods involved in the case were first transported from outside China to the FTZ, where procedures for customs clearance were handled later, before they left the FTZ (only at this point were the procedures for the importation of the goods considered to be complete).  Once the civil relationship was determined to be “foreign-related”, the arbitration clause was thus valid.

The Shanghai IPC then explained how the content of the arbitral award did not conflict with China’s public policy, and the court, therefore, ruled to recognize and enforce the award.  The court also relied on the legal principles of estoppel, good faith, and fairness and reasonableness to rule against Golden Landmark because the company’s initial recognition of the validity of the arbitration clause (as reflected in its participation in all the arbitration proceedings and partial performance of the obligations determined by the award) and subsequent denial of the clause did not conform with these principles.

SPC’s Changed Position and “Belt & Road”

A closer look at the Reply shows that the SPC’s liberal interpretation of the term “foreign-related civil relationship” was related to the B&R Initiative (the “BRI”).  In the Reply, the SPC stated explicitly that the new interpretation was to, inter alia, coherently meet the requirements of the Several Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court Concerning Judicial Services and Safeguards Provided by the People’s Courts for the “Belt and Road” Construction (the “B&R Construction Opinions”), [7] which was issued in 2015, and follow the spirit of supporting “the pioneering trial implementation of rule-of-law construction in free trade zones”.

In Paragraph 8 of the B&R Construction Opinions, the SPC sets some goals related to arbitration, including the following:

[The people’s courts] shall strengthen, in accordance with law, the judicial review of arbitral awards involving parties from countries along the “Belt and Road” routes and shall promote the important roles of international commercial and maritime arbitrations in the construction of the “Belt and Road”. […. The people’s courts] shall explore methods and ways for the judiciary to support the optimization of the roles of trade, investment, and other international dispute resolution mechanisms; shall safeguard the performance of obligations of agreements of countries along the “Belt and Road” routes such as agreements on bilateral investment protection and agreements on free trade zones; and shall give support to the resolution by arbitration of disputes in the construction of the “Belt and Road”. (emphasis added)

These details from the Reply and the B&R Construction Opinions shed light on the emphasis placed by the SPC on FTZs and the BRI in the SPC’s explanation of the significance of Siemens v. Golden Landmark.  In TC12, the SPC wrote:

Pilot free trade zones are foundational platforms, important nodes, and strategic footholds for China’s promotion of the “Belt and Road” construction. […]

[The ruling rendered in Siemens v. Golden Landmark] has put into practice the concept of [rendering judgments] “conducive to the enforcement of [arbitral] awards” [stated in] the New York Convention and has reflected China’s fundamental position of abiding by its obligations under international treaties.  At the same time, this case, “from points to surfaces”, drives forward the groundbreaking reform of [allowing] enterprises within pilot free trade zones to choose arbitration outside the territory [of China][This case] is a successful example of judicial experience that can be replicated and extended to [other cases involving] pilot free trade zones. (emphasis added)

The SPC did not simply stand by and let the “successful example of judicial experience” in Siemens v. Golden Landmark become gradually replicated and extended to all of the eleven FTZs in China [8] through the adjudication of similar cases.  Instead, in January 2017, the SPC issued the Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Provision of Judicial Safeguards for the Construction of Pilot Free Trade Zones, (the “2017 Opinions”), [9] Paragraph 9 of which provides:

where wholly foreign-owned enterprises registered in pilot free trade zones mutually agree to submit a commercial dispute to arbitration outside the territory [of China], [a people’s court] should not determine that the related arbitration agreement is invalid merely on the grounds that the [enterprises’] dispute does not have foreign-related elements.

This provision “codifies” what was decided in Siemens v. Golden Landmark, but its scope is broader than the case, where the two WFOEs were registered in the same FTZ.  The first part of this provision suggests that WFOEs registered in any one of China’s FTZs are covered by the provision.

Paragraph 9 of the 2017 Opinions also provides for two situations where “one or two of the parties are foreign-invested enterprises registered in a pilot free trade zone” and the two parties, say, Party A and Party B, have agreed to submit a commercial dispute to arbitration outside China.  In the first situation, Party A submits a dispute to arbitration outside China but, after the related arbitral award is rendered, argues that the arbitration agreement is invalid.  In the second situation, Party B does not raise an objection to the validity of the arbitration agreement during the proceedings of arbitration initiated by Party A but, after the related arbitral award is rendered, challenges the validity of the arbitration agreement on the grounds that the dispute does not have foreign-related elements.  In either situation, according to Paragraph 9, “a people’s court shall not support [the argument].”

The provision described in the preceding paragraph is a clear attempt by the SPC to “codify” the legal principles of estoppel, good faith, and fairness and reasonableness that were relied upon in ruling against Golden Landmark in Siemens v. Golden Landmark.  A deviation from the case (where two parties were WFOEs registered in the same FTZ) is that only one party needs to be a “foreign-invested enterprise” (which, apart from WFOE, covers joint ventures) registered in an FTZ in China.

The above analysis leads to an intriguing question: why was the SPC taking these measures within such a short time to provide, for the construction of FTZs, judicial safeguards that go beyond the scope of Siemens v. Golden Landmark?  The SPC’s statement in TC12 that the above provisions of the 2017 Opinions are “helpful for the construction of a more stable and predictable rule-of-law ‘Belt and Road’ business environment” suggests that the answer is related to the BRI.  But what is the urgent matter in the BRI that needs to be addressed so rapidly by the SPC, to the extent that the highest court had to issue the 2017 Opinions in January 2017, followed by the release of TC12 to further bolster the impact of the 2017 Opinions?

Recent developments show that the answer is the need to set up a cost-efficient and fair B&R dispute resolution mechanism to facilitate China’s global economic expansion.  In January 2018, China’s leaders passed, at the second meeting of the Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, a guideline on the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism to resolve, in accordance with law, disputes among the B&R countries. [10]  The mechanism will reportedly provide litigation, arbitration, and mediation that are based on systems used in China, with appropriate adaptations. [11]  With respect to litigation, China has already announced that it will establish three courts, in Xi’an, Shenzhen, and Beijing, to handle B&R disputes, all of which will be under the leadership of the SPC, though related details remain unclear. [12]

As for arbitration, Western models have drawn concerns because they are generally complicated, time-consuming, and costly.  Most B&R countries are developing countries with limited economic strength and are unlikely to find these models suitable.  Neither would China, the main player in these projects, because these models generally apply laws from Western countries and use English as the common language. [13]  It is thus not surprising that China would like to build a B&R arbitration system that is based on its own legal system.  Yet there is an urgent need for this system to be seen as fair and stable.  This explains the SPC’s efforts in rolling out a series of measures to quickly reform arbitration in China’s FTZs.  In TC12, the SPC put it this way:

Pilot free trade zones are [….] strategic footholds for China’s promotion of the “Belt and Road” construction. Aligning [China’s practices] with common international practices, supporting the development of pilot free trade zones, and improving international arbitration and other non-litigation dispute resolution mechanisms will [all] help strengthen the international credibility and influence of China’s rule of law. (emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

TC12, Siemens v. Golden Landmark, marks significant steps by people’s courts to stay in line with China’s rapid economic development and further internationalization, heading towards a more expansive approach to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards.  An obvious lesson learned is that it would be wise for foreign businesses to establish their presence in FTZs to have the freedom to refer their disputes to foreign arbitration.  A deeper understanding of the case and actions taken by the SPC before and after the case allows one to further predict that more reforms favorable to foreign businesses will be introduced in FTZs because China needs to build a B&R dispute resolution mechanism that is seen as fair by parties involved in B&R projects.  TC12 exemplifies how much a short case can entail; practitioners must read all the telltales to chart their B&R course successfully.


Authors’ Bios

Tereza Gao and Edison Li are winners of the China Guiding Cases Project’s 2017 China Cases InsightsTM Writing Contest.

Ms. Gao is a Registered Foreign Lawyer (New York) at DLA Piper’s Hong Kong office. Prior to relocating to Hong Kong, she worked at the firm’s San Francisco office. She focuses on complex business litigation and international arbitration, and has experience in handling IPR disputes, environmental litigation, employment matters, and judicial review of executive actions.

Mr. Li is a Registered Foreign Lawyer (PRC) at DLA Piper’s Hong Kong office. His main area of practice is in commercial litigation and arbitration, with particular focus on shipping and international trade.  He has experience in handling disputes covering areas such as sale of goods/trade, commodities, charter-parties, ship sale and purchase, ship construction, and cargo claims.

Endnotes

*          The citation of this China Cases InsightTM is: Tereza Gao & Edison Li, Through Siemens v. Golden Landmark, China Reforms Arbitration for Free Trade Zones in Order to Prepare for “Belt & Road”, 1 China Law Connect 48 (June 2018), also available at Stanford Law School China Guiding Cases Project, China Cases InsightsTM, June 2018, http://cgc.law.stanford.edu/commentaries/clc-1-201806-insights-5-gao-li.

The original, English version of this China Cases InsightTM was edited by Dimitri Phillips and Dr. Mei Gechlik.  The information and views set out in this China Cases InsightTM are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the work or views of the China Guiding Cases Project.

[1]           《西门子国际贸易(上海)有限公司与上海黄金置地有限公司申请承认和执行外国仲裁裁决案》(Siemens International Trading (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. and Shanghai Golden Landmark Company Limited, A Case of an Application for the Recognition and Enforcement of a Foreign Arbitral Award), Stanford Law School China Guiding Cases Project, B&R CasesTM, Typical Case 12 (TC12), Mar. 27, 2018 Edition, http://cgc.law.stanford.edu/belt-and-road/b-and-r-cases/typical-case-12.

[2]          《西门子国际贸易(上海)有限公司诉上海黄金置地有限公司申请承认和执行外国仲裁裁决一案一审民事裁定书》 (Siemens International Trading (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. v. Shanghai Golden Landmark Company Limited, The First-Instance Civil Ruling of a Case of an Application for the Recognition and Enforcement of a Foreign Arbitral Award) (2013)沪一中民认(外仲)字第2号民事裁定 ((2013) Hu Yi Zhong Min Ren (Wai Zhong) Zi No. 2 Civil Ruling), rendered by the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court of Shanghai Municipality on Nov. 27, 2015, full text available on the Stanford Law School China Guiding Cases Project’s website, at https://cgc.law.stanford.edu/judgments/shanghai-2013-hu-yi-zhong-min-ren-wai-zhong-zi-02-civil-ruling.

[3]           《最高人民法院关于西门子国际贸易(上海)有限公司申请承认与执行外国仲裁裁决一案的请示的复函》 (Reply of the Supreme People’s Court to the Request for Instructions on a Case of an Application by Siemens International Trading (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. for the Recognition and Enforcement of a Foreign Arbitral Award), issued on and effective as of Oct. 10, 2015, http://en.pkulaw.cn/display.aspx?cgid=295500&lib=law.

[4]           《最高人民法院关于江苏航天万源风电设备制造有限公司与艾尔姆风能叶片制品(天津)有限公司 申请确认仲裁协议效力纠纷一案的请示的复函》 (Reply of the Supreme People’s Court to the Request for Instructions on a Case of an Application for the Determination of the Validity of an Arbitration Agreement between Jiangsu Aerospace Wanyuan Wind Power Equipment Manufacturing Co., Ltd. and LM Wind Energy Blade Products (Tianjin) Co., Ltd.), issued on and effective as of Aug. 31, 2012, https://law.wkinfo.com.cn/legislation/detail/MTAxMDAwOTgxODA%3D.

For more discussion of this reply and related topics, see GAO Feng, TENG Haidi, & WU Mingyan, Dispute Resolution & Choice of Law in China-Related Contracts, Insights, Oct. 16, 2015, http://www.kwm.com/knowledge/insights/dispute-resolution-and-choice-of-law-in-china-related-contracts-20151016.

[5]           《最高人民法院关于适用〈中华人民共和国涉外民事关系法律适用法〉若干问题的解释(一)》 (Interpretation (I) of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Concerning the Application of the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Laws Applicable to Foreign-Related Civil Relationships”), passed by the Adjudication Committee of the Supreme People’s Court on Dec. 10, 2012, issued on Dec. 28, 2012, effective as of Jan. 7, 2013, http://www.chinacourt.org/law/detail/2012/12/id/146055.shtml.

[6]           Full-text English and Chinese versions of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards are available on the Convention’s website, http://www.newyorkconvention.org.

[7]           《最高人民法院关于人民法院为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的若干意见》(Several Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court Concerning Judicial Services and Safeguards Provided by the People’s Courts for the “Belt and Road” Construction), issued on and effective as of June 16, 2015, http://www.chinacourt.org/law/detail/2015/06/id/148302.shtml.

[8]           For more information about China’s FTZs, see, e.g., China Focus: China FTZs Expand Opening for Foreign Business, Xinhua, Jan. 14, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/14/c_136894961.htm; Dezan Shira & Associates, Investing in China’s Free Trade Zones, China Briefing, Sept. 21, 2017, http://www.china-briefing.com/news/2017/09/21/investing-in-chinas-free-trade-zones.html.

[9]           《最高人民法院关于为自由贸易试验区建设提供司法保障的意见》 (Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Provision of Judicial Safeguards for the Construction of Pilot Free Trade Zones), issued on and effective as of Dec. 30, 2016, http://www.court.gov.cn/zixun-xiangqing-34502.html.

[10]           Senior Leaders Stress Trade Dispute Mechanism for Belt & Road, Xinhua, Jan. 24, 2018, http://www.china.org.cn/business/2018-01/24/content_50288588.htm.

[11]           Id.

[12]           See Janne Suokas, China to Set Up Belt and Road Court for Settling Disputes, gbtimes.com, Jan. 25, 2018, https://gbtimes.com/china-to-set-up-belt-and-road-court-for-settling-disputes; Dezan Shira & Associates, Confusion over Dispute Resolution at China’s New Belt and Road Courts, China Briefing, Feb. 2, 2018, http://www.china-briefing.com/news/2018/02/02/bilateral-confusion-dispute-resolution-chinas-new-belt-road-courts.html.

[13]           See Sabena Siddiqui, Beijing Plans New Mechanism for Belt and Road Arbitration, Asia Times, Feb. 7, 2018, http://www.atimes.com/belt-road-arbitration-new-mechanism.