Peter Drysdale’s weekly editorial for the East Asia Forum, along with related postings to that blog and enormous media attention in Australia and elsewhere, focuses ‘on the continuing detention of Rio Tinto executive, Stern Hu, in Shanghai on allegations of espionage’. Drysdale signposts some future analysis of ‘the legal framework under which Hu’s detention has taken place’. He also emphasises that we need ‘a cooperative framework—bilaterally, regionally and globally‘ for ‘China’s authorities to avoid damage to the reliability of markets and for Australia to avoid the perception of investment protectionism’. The most pressing legal (and diplomatic) issues concern China’s criminal justice system, especially when ‘national security’ is allegedly involved. But we need already to consider some broader ramifications, including how we think about FDI legislation and (increasingly intertwined) investment treaty protections.
In short, most agree that the Chinese government got annoyed when Australia itself invoked national security interests to restrict Minmetals bid for OZ Minerals back in March 2009. Then it got really annoyed when Chinalco’s bid for Rio Tinto fell through, even though the Australian government wasn’t directly involved. And so, one story goes, Stern Hu has been arrested to send a message – in the hope that Australia (and other potential host states) will be think twice before invoking national security exceptions to restrict future FDI from China. The China-watchers are better placed to decide whether this is really the motivation behind his arrest. My point here is rather that we should not be surprised that host states may be increasingly tempted to invoke exceptions to limit FDI at the outset, which in turn generates risks of (over-)reactions by home states, as we may be witnessing in Hu’s case. And the initial temptation may arise due to proliferating investor-state arbitration provisions in investment treaties, because those later restrict their room to invoke national security or other limits once the FDI has been approved.