Treaty-based Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) keeps attracting media attention. An example is a social media campaign by the ‘GetUp!’ group, which aims generally ‘to build a progressive Australia and bring participation back into our democracy’, objecting to ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This free trade agreement (FTA), signed in February 2016, encompasses Australia and 11 other Asia-Pacific economies generating around 40% of world GDP. Whether and how the TPP will be ratified and come into force has become very uncertain anyway, after the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in US presidential elections. Although Trump seems already to be backtracking on some of his pre-election positions, he had been opposed to the US ratifying the TPP and indeed favoured renegotiation of the longstanding North American FTA with Canada and Mexico. Both FTAs include the option of ISDS, allowing foreign investors to bring direct claims against host states for violating substantive commitments such as non-discrimination or adequate compensation for expropriation.
Nonetheless, taking advantage of the extra uncertainty now surrounding the TPP, China is already trying to get Australia’s support to progress negotiations for a broader FTA, establishing a “Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific” (FTAAP). China had been pressing for a FTAAP as it had not been included in TPP negotiations. After the TPP was signed, China had also tried to accelerate negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP or ASEAN+6) FTA, underway since late 2012 and involving ten Southeast Asian states along with China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Ministerial statements and a leaked draft Investment Chapter indicate that ISDS provisions remain on the negotiating agenda for RCEP (Kawharu, Amokura and Nottage, Luke R., Models for Investment Treaties in the Asian Region: An Underview, 2016).
Public opposition to ISDS therefore remains an important issue, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Legal professionals need to engage with this debate and understand the pros and cons of this dispute resolution procedure, especially the investor-state arbitration mechanism. On the one hand, the GetUp! Campaign against the TPP had focused on the risk of Australia being subject to ISDS claims especially from US investors, in light of their claims against Canada under the North American FTA. Yet damages awarded by arbitrators or through settlements amount to only 0.05% of US FDI in Canada, and the latter’s investors bring more ISDS claims per capita than US investors.
On the other hand, the GetUp! campaign did not adequately explain or consider why and how ISDS commitments are made. Host states have increasingly offered such protection to foreign investors in investment treaties since the 1970s. Bilateral investment treaties (BITs) proliferated especially as communist states began to open up their economies from the 1990s. Bilateral and regional FTAs, usually with investment chapters also containing ISDS protections, were concluded after the collapse of efforts to develop a multilateral investment agreement through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The extra option of treaty-based ISDS was seen as a more direct and less politicized procedure compared to inter-state dispute settlement. The latter is still typically provided in investment treaties (but hardly ever used), as well as for trade disputes under the WTO (where, for example, Australia has only been complainant in seven cases – last in 2003). Credible commitments through ISDS-backed treaties were seen as particularly important for developing countries where domestic courts and legal protections did not meet international standards.
Yet ISDS has recently become a lightning rod for public opposition to FTAs (and economic globalization more generally), often after host states are subjected to their investment treaty claims (Nottage, Luke R., Rebalancing Investment Treaties and Investor-State Arbitration: Two Approaches,, 2016). For example, major debate emerged in India after Australia’s White Industries won a claim in 2011 under UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules as provided by the BIT with India (signed with Australia in 1999). The tribunal found that India had not satisfied the promised “effective means” for the investor to enforce a commercial arbitration award (against an Indian SOE). This and subsequent claims prompted the Indian government to finalise a revised (less pro-investor) Model BIT in December 2015 It is now being used in negotiating new BITs (eg that signed with Cambodia in 2016) and indeed when proposing to terminate older-generation treaties (including with Australia).
Similarly, Philip Morris Asia’s much larger claim initiated in 2011 under a BIT signed in 1993 with Hong Kong, for alleged expropriation of trademarks from Australia’s tobacco plain packaging legislation, led to escalating local media coverage – until the arbitral tribunal rejected jurisdiction in 2015 (Hepburn, Jarrod and Nottage, Luke R., Case Note: Philip Morris Asia v Australia, 2016). This cause celebre also became a factor behind the Gillard Government Trade Policy Statement announcing in 2011 a major shift for Australia: eschewing ISDS in new treaties, even with developing countries (Nottage, Luke R., The Rise and Possible Fall of Investor-State Arbitration in Asia: A Skeptic’s View of Australia’s ‘Gillard Government Trade Policy Statement’, 2011). This resulted in no significant FTAs being concluded, until a new Coalition Government gained power in late 2014 and reverted to including ISDS on a case-by-case assessment (Nottage, Luke R., Investor-State Arbitration Policy and Practice in Australia, 2016). The current Labor Opposition maintains its objections to ISDS, creating difficulties for Australia to ratify the TPP.
Australia’s temporary shift was partly due to politics: in 2011 the (centre-left) Gillard Labor Government was in coalition with the Greens, who are even more opposed to free trade and investment. But the stance also relied on arguments from some economists, even though they instead favour more free trade and foreign investment, albeit through unilateral or perhaps multilateral initiatives rather than bilateral or even regional FTAs. Developing the latter perspective , a majority report of the Productivity Commission in 2010 into Australia’s FTAs had argued against the common world-wide practice of offering foreign investors extra procedural rights such as ISDS. It did concede that such extra rights might be justified, for example if they led to greater cross-border flows in foreign direct investment (FDI). Yet the Commission pointed to a few studies suggesting that, on an aggregate (world-wide) basis, ISDS-backed treaty provisions had not significantly increased flows.
A recent econometric study by Luke Nottage (a co-author of this posting) with Shiro Armstrong casts doubt on that observation (Armstrong, Shiro Patrick and Nottage, Luke R., The Impact of Investment Treaties and ISDS Provisions on Foreign Direct Investment: A Baseline Econometric Analysis, 2016. After an extensive review of existing empirical research and associated methodological issues, their study instead found positive and significant impacts from ISDS provisions on FDI outflows from OECD countries over 1985-2014, using a Knowledge-Capital Model with a dynamic panel indicator (effectively addressing the problem of endogeneity in variables). This impact on FDI could be found from ISDS provisions on their own, especially when ISDS was included in treaties signed or promptly ratified with non-OECD or less developed countries. The econometric study by Armstrong and Nottage also found a positive and significant impact from ISDS provisions when combined with the Most-Favoured-Nation provision, which is a key and indicative substantive treaty commitment for foreign investors. (This aspect was tested because the “strength” of treaties can vary in terms of substantive commitments by host states: we might not expect much impact on FDI even from ISDS provisions if the substantive protections and liberalisation commitments are few.)
Counter-intuitively, however, the study found that in general FDI impact was even larger for weaker-form ISDS provisions. This could be due to investors historically having been impressed by a broader “signaling” effect from states concluding investment treaties. Yet the impact from ISDS provisions also seems to be diminishing since 2001, when ISDS claims started to pick up world-wide and therefore investors (or at least legal advisors) could have begun to pay more attention to the details of ISDS and other treaty provisions. Reduced impact since 2001 may be related to more efforts from host states to unilaterally liberalise and encourage FDI. However, it could also be due to a saturation effect (as treaties began to be concluded with less economically important partner states), or indeed due to less pro-investor provisions being incorporated into investment treaties (influenced by more recent US practice, partly in response to ISDS claims (Alschner, Wolfgang and Skougarevskiy, Dmitriy, Mapping the Universe of International Investment Agreements, 2016.
Further variables impacting on FDI (such as double-tax treaties) could be investigated, as can regional differences. Data limitations also remain, as there is now considerable FDI outflow from non-OECD countries. Nonetheless, this baseline study suggests that it has been and still may be risky to eschew ISDS provisions altogether. In particular, results indicate a strong positive effect on FDI flows from ratified investment treaties overall even from 2001. So states would have missed out on that if they had insisted on omitting ISDS, and this then became a deal-breaker for counterparty states.
Further econometric research underway at a Delhi-based thinktank suggests that India was correct not to abandon ISDS provisions altogether in its revised Model BIT (and to retreat from an even less pro-investor earlier draft of the Model BIT. While this study by Jaivir Singh (one of the co-authors of this posting) and his colleagues is still ongoing, preliminary results (using instead a gravity-type model) find that although the signing of individual BITs had an insignificant impact on FDI inflows into India, the cumulative effect of signing BITs is significant and so is the coefficient associated with the signing of FTAs. Since almost all of India’s investment treaties provide for full ISDS protections, these preliminary results suggest that ISDS can have a positive influence on foreign investment, albeit in a non-obvious compound manner.
Overall, these studies suggest that ISDS-backed treaty provisions liberalising and protecting FDI have had a significant impact, but in complex and evolving ways. Agreeing to dialed-back ISDS provisions and even substantive commitments (perhaps following recent EU preferences may be an acceptable way forward. This is true especially for Australia and India, as they continue negotiations bilaterally as well as through RCEP, and perhaps eventually for the FTAAP FTA.
Luke Nottage is Professor at University of Sydney Law School & Jaivir Singh is Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
This post draws on Nottage’s joint project researching international investment dispute management, funded by the Australian Research Council (DP140102526, 2014-7); and Singh’s ongoing project assessing the impact of investment treaties on FDI in India, for the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. Singh was a visitor at the University of Sydney in October 2016. The article was first published by the Asia-Pacific Forum for International Arbitration, and republished here with permission.