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First(ish) Indian firm to open China office: PSL bets on ‘crazy’ commercial opportunity in politically ‘tricky’ Belt & Road

China’s masterful international diplomacy may not be popular with India’s government, but it’s here to stay and it’s big, according to PSL

Silk routing it: Jain (left) with PSL co-founder Sandeep Bajaj (r)
Silk routing it: Jain (left) with PSL co-founder Sandeep Bajaj (r)

PSL Advocates & Solicitors has set up a small office in China’s fifth-larges city, Hangzhou, and is in the process of hiring a local lawyer there to capitalise on increasing outbound work to India.

As far as we’re aware, it will be the first Indian law firm with an office in the country, which India has traditionally had a rather complicated relationship with. Correction 13 March 2019: It appears Remfry & Sagar used to have a “presence” in China at some in time.

justCo-managing partner Sameer Jain, who had founded Delhi-based Pamasis Law Chambers that had merged with Mumbai-based SanAd Legal in 2017 to form PSL, said that PSL currently had at least five regular clients in China, including a local consulting firm, which has agreed to use PSL as its preferred Indian law firm.

“There’s a crazy amount of work happening in China... There was an opportunity for China and we realised [...] a lot of firms are focusing on China, but without an office there,” said Jain, citing Link Legal India Law Services partner Santosh Pai, in particular. “Having an office there gives more opportunities.”

Jain added that while PSL’s overseas jurisdictional focus had mainly been on Japan, Israel and Russia work, he and his co-managing partner Sandeep Bajaj had been spending a lot of time in China and would continue to do so with the new office, in which they were finalising one local law hire.

However, the firm would only advise, broadly, on India-inbound investment advisory and international arbitration disputes work.

“Once we have a Chinese national set up there, we will [evaluate] whether we would require a licence to practice Indian law there.” explained Jain. “But it’s more of a representative office, we’re not doing Chinese courts, but purely India advisory work.”

Buckling up for a bumpy ride

China’s so-called “One Belt One Road” initiative has seen its government make billions of US dollars of investment in land and sea transportation and other infrastructure projects, particularly amongst China’s neighbours.

Coupled with China waiving later waiving loans it provided for projects and its government then taking ownership of foreign infrastructure assets, such as roads in Pakistan, has not been popular with China’s rivals, such as India or the US.

However, Jain argued: “Belt and road is an opportunity pool for everyone in the Asian region. The amount of contracts, the quantum of contracts entered into for belt and road is immense.”

“India is not quite happy,” he conceded about the domestic reception of belt and road, saying that India’s government response “has always been contradictory”, having made no formal statements for or against it, and has been “very hesitant to come out in open support, very naturally so”.

“But I don’t think India has an option,” he added. “They [India] will certainly have to cave in and participate in belt and road.

“It’s a tricky situation the Indian government but from a private corporate side, [Indian corporates working with Chinese corporates, as well as Chinese corporates] have a big earning opportunity. They will grab it with both hands.”

India was not in a position to undo belt and road, opined Jain. “It’s too huge to jeopardise, when there are international pressures to cave in, they’ll have to cave in.

“I’m sure they’ll not be too happy with it. but from our perspective as a law firm it’s a great opportunity.”

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