China manufacturing contracts

In cleaning out old emails today I came across one from years ago; an email from a couple of our international manufacturing lawyers to a new client who had asked us to review its “China contracts.”

The topic of this post is actually on something on which we have not written about previously on here: the need to line up your contracts with your overseas product manufacturers to track your contracts with your product buyers. The below is an email (nearly word for word, but with the company names changed) where we noted the great risks our new client would be facing if it did not secure a new manufacturing contract with its Chinese manufacturer.

Your request was to have us review your Manufacturing Agreement for IP issues.  We provided you with our comments on those issues in the memo we sent you yesterday. This email is to let you know our concerns regarding basic business issues.

Your contracts put you in a very difficult position.  You contracted with (American Business Company) ABC to distribute your products around the world, but you do not control the manufacturing of your Product. Instead, you are having China Manufacturing Company (CMC) manufacture your products and CMC is itself dependent on layers of subcontractors and suppliers located in China.

Your big business risk stems from not being  able to meet your obligation to ABC due to your relationship with CMC and to its various relationships with its subcontractors and suppliers. It is therefore critical that you do something to ensure that your  agreements with ABC and with CMC do not directly conflict and are as closely in harmony as possible. Absolute agreement is not normally possible, but there should not be any big holes. An example of a big hole is one where you are obligated to fill an order from ABC at a specific price, but CMC has the right to reject the corresponding PO from you.

The below are some examples of the issues that can arise by not truing up your two contracts:

a. ABC places an order with you that you must fill and you then submit the corresponding PO to CMC to get the products to provide to ABC. CMC simply rejects the PO because it is not obligated to perform.

b. Same as above, but CMC rejects in violation of your Contract Manufacturing Agreement with CMC.

c. Same as above, but CMC does not deliver or delivers late due to a default on the part of its Chinese subcontractors.

d. Your contract with ABC has you agreeing to a fixed price for two years, but your contract with CMC is silent on pricing. This means CMC can between now and two years from now raise its prices to a point where you literally lose money on every sale to ABC.

e. CMC consistently delivers product late, or short or with defects.

The overriding issue here is that you need a Contract Manufacturing Agreement with CMC that seeks to the greatest extent possible to reduce or limit your risk/liability to AMC for any of the above.

In general, the terms of your Contract Manufacturing Agreement with CMC should be parallel to the terms of your product selling/distribution agreement with ABC. This means at a minimum:

i. CMC is required to accept your POs that are within your forecast.

ii. CMC is required to lock its prices for at least two years. There are other options here.

iii. CMC must be made subject to the same consequential liability damages for all breaches of its Contract Manufacturing Agreement with you. This means product liability breach, defective product breach, late/short delivery and failure to accept a valid PO.

iv. CMC should not be permitted to use a force majeure defense relating to anything that happens in China regarding the operations of its Chinese subcontractors. CMC should be required to take on the full risk of what happens in China.

None of the above is currently covered in your existing agreement with  CMC agreement and for the most part, the ABC agreement and the CMC agreement are not in sync. Some examples of ABC contract matters that are not consistent with the CMC agreement are as follows:

Section 3.3 and Section 9.2 on liability for late delivery.

Section 9. Price is EXW, California, but CMC price is FOB, China.

Section 15: Your CMC contract prohibits subcontracting, but we know that there are at least two layers of subcontracting and probably more.

Having said the above, the CMC agreement was intentionally crafted by CMC to be unclear and to eliminate as much liability as possible for CMC. Major revisions to this agreement may therefore be difficult. At a minimum, however, the following should be made clear:

1. What is the obligation for CMC to accept Purchase Orders? Usually we provide that the manufacturer is required to accept the PO if it falls within an annual rolling average projection. What is often not covered is what happens if the buyer does not purchase, or suspends purchases during the term.

2. What is your agreement with CMC on price?

3. What is CMC’s liability for late delivery of your products or for short delivery?

4. What is CMC’s liability for defects? CMC wants to limit its liability to the issuance of a credit. This is bad for two reasons: One, this means you can only collect on the credit if you make another purchase. Two, your credit is limited to the price of the defective goods and does not cover other losses. The other losses can be considerable in the case of defects. If a recall is ordered, the dollars lost can be huge

All of the above should be stated in simple, blunt language. The vague language of your existing Contract Manufacturing Agreement with CMC is the opposite. It sounds okay, but if you really analyze it, most of it either says nothing or it is designed to get CMC off the hook for just about everything.

We will stop our review at this point and wait for your instructions on the next step(s) you want us to take. Feel free to call to call us to discuss.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.