Australia and Japan finally concluded a bilateral Free Trade Agreement on 7 April 2014. Some Australian media outlets had prior inklings that negotiations had achieved significant breakthroughs, especially for agricultural market access into Japan, but a frequent assumption was that Australia must have “given up” something major in return. Concerns were expressed that this included measures favouring Japanese investors into Australia, especially protections from investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS, especially arbitration) provisions [listen to my radio interview here]. These provide an extra avenue for foreign investors to enforce the substantive treaty rights limiting a host state’s capacity to illegally interfere with foreign investments (eg through expropriation). They add to the (more politicised) inter-state arbitration procedure invariably included in investment treaties, as well as any rights under domestic law available through the host state’s court system – particularly problematic in developing countries, such as Indonesia.
ISDS provisions had been added to the Korea-Australia FTA concluded in December 2013 by the Abbott Government, which also declared that it was reverting to a case-by-case approach to ISDS. This contrasted with the position taken by the 2011 Gillard Government Trade Policy Statement, which had reversed Australia’s longstanding treaty practice by declaring that it would not agree to any forms of ISDS in future treaties – even with developing countries. The 2012 Malaysia-Australia FTA omitted ISDS, although that was meaningless in practice as ISDS remains available to enforce similar substantive rights under the 2009 ASEAN-Australia-NZ FTA. Curiously, however, the new Australia-Japan FTA ultimately omitted ISDS provisions as well. Why is this, and what are the broader implications?