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November 2015

by: Luke Nottage and Leon Trakman

[A shorter version of this also appears today under a different title on The Conversation blog.]

Alongside this week’s APEC leaders’ summit in Manila, US President Obama met with counterparts and trade ministers from 11 other Asia-Pacific states that agreed in October to the expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. These states, covering around 40 percent of world GDP, cannot sign it before 3 February, when the US Congress finishes its 90-day review. But Obama and others in Manila reiterated the importance of the TPP for regional and indeed global economic integration.

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The preceding analysis highlights another important feature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement: its inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, especially arbitration (generating a decision binding on both disputing parties, unlike mediation – which they may also attempt under Art 9.17.1 but do not need to try first). This alternative to inter-state arbitration (found in Chapter 28, as in almost all investment treaties) emerged as a common extra option for foreign investors to enforce their substantive rights if their home states did not wish to pursue a treaty claim on their behalf, for diplomatic, cost or other reasons. This mechanism has been seen as particularly important for credible commitments by developing or other countries with national legal systems perceived as not meeting international standards for protecting investors.

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On 5 October the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) FTA was substantially agreed among 12 Asia-Pacific countries (including Japan, the US and Australia), and the lengthy text was released publically on 5 November 2015. Commentators are now speculating on its prospects for ratification, as well as pressure already for countries like China and Korea to join and/or accelerate negotiations for their Regional Comprehensive Partnership (ASEAN+6) FTA in the region. There has also been considerable (and typically quite polarised) media commentary on the TPP’s investment chapter, especially investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, highlights a remark by my colleague and intellectual property (IP) rights expert, A/Prof Kimberlee Weatherall, that Australia “could get sued for billions for some change to mining law or fracking law or God knows what else”. Other preliminary responses have been more measured, including some by myself (in The Australian on 6 November) or Professor Tania Voon within Australia, and other general commentary from abroad.

Based partly on an ongoing ARC joint research project on international investment dispute management, with a particular focus on Australia and the Asia-Pacific, I briefly introduce the scope of ISDS-backed protections for foreign investors in the TPP, compared especially to the recently-agreed bilateral FTAs with Korea and China. Overall, the risks of claims appear similar to those under Australia’s FTAs (and significantly less than some of its earlier generation of standalone investment treaties). However, some specific novelties and omissions are highlighted below, and issues remain that need to be debated more broadly such as the interaction between the investment and IP chapters (as indeed raised by both A/Prof Weatherall and myself in last year’s Senate inquiry into the “Anti-ISDS Bill”). The wording of the TPP’s investment chapter derives primarily from US investment treaty and FTA practice, which has influenced many other Asia-Pacific countries (including Australia) in their own international negotiations. Yet the European Union is now actively considering some further innovations to recalibrate ISDS-based investment commitments.

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Japanese Law in Asia-Pacific Socio-Economic Context
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