Recently, the Australia-China Youth Association (ACYA) hosted Australia-China Emerging Leaders’ Summits (ACELS) in Shanghai and Sydney respectively, which brought together many prominent youth delegates from the two nations. Legal practice in the Asia-Pacific region was a strong focus. Amongst the delegates and networking participants, there were a number of legal practitioners and law students from both Australia and the People’s Republic of China. Additionally, interesting conclusions were reached regarding the prevalence of legal issues for cross-border commercial activities between the nations.

Foremost, government and business leaders from the two countries attended ACELS. The consistent message coming across was one that all lawyers will be familiar with — the complexity of navigating regulatory regimes between Australia and China. Despite an overall decrease in regulation (a result of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and similar initiatives), the primary challenges facing businesses that aim to have bilateral operations still appear to be legal requirements of compliance with regulatory systems and effective communication with relevant regulators. Without knowledge of the precise regulatory limitations for a business’ operations in a jurisdiction, it is difficult for companies to achieve commercial certainty. It is imperative to understand the existing law and its practical application. Attendees highlighted that an absence of this knowledge acts as a ‘legal handbrake’ on prospective commercial operations.

An Australian company, whose operations in China are about 1/50 the size of their presence in Australia, provided the following example. Despite this overwhelming difference in size, it must complete double the number of reports in China as in Australia for regulatory compliance,. Evidently, the complexity of regulatory requirements places substantial burdens on the company, whose operations in China are not large. For the majority of foreign companies operating in China, this appears to be a shared experience — the inability to obtain commercial certainty can hamper their investment options.

Importantly however, Chinese companies looking to invest in Australia have faced similar difficulties. Many large-scale proposed investments appear before the Foreign Investment Review Board, or are so politically-charged that the project’s future becomes uncertain, such as Shanghai Pengxin’s involvement in a bid for the Kidman pastoral empire (see for example this ABC article). Similarly, the recent approval of the bid by Chinese company Landbridge to operate the Port of Darwin has been highly controversial and subject to intense public scrutiny (see for example this ABC article).

These shared experiences at ACELS helped delegates to realise the high demand for cross-border commercial legal practice. Many commercial law firms specialise in advising foreign clients on the local regulatory environment, which presents an opportunity to the next generation of emerging commercial lawyers. They will need to be equipped with fluid skillsets, that enable them to not only advise clients on their home jurisdiction, but to collaborate with colleagues overseas in order to provide seamless advice that gives clients a holistic appraisal of regulatory conditions in each jurisdiction and the interplay between them. Following a string of newly signed free trade agreements between Australia and our major Asian trading partners in China, South Korea and Japan, much larger numbers of companies and investors will be exposed to the legal and regulatory difficulties associated with cross-border business. Naturally, this will lead to an increase in the demand for legal expertise in dealing with these issues.

David Douglas, President of the Australia-China Youth Association and graduate lawyer at a leading international law firm.