The Evolution of the Settlement of Investor-State Disputes in China

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Copyright: Xiao, Zhenyu
China is a key actor in global investment governance and has experienced incredible growth of inward and outward investment over the past four decades. It has also built a dense network of investment treaties. China’s engagement with the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism in investment treaties has followed a distinctive trajectory. This thesis is an attempt to explain the evolution of China’s ISDS policymaking over time. In particular, it seeks to explain why China expanded access to investor-state arbitration in the late 1990s and why that expansion of access involved integration with China’s domestic administrative review procedures. The thesis also examines subsequent changes in China’s approach to ISDS up to the present, paying particular attention to questions of whether the key policy shift of the late 1990s achieved its intended objectives and how Chinese policymakers’ concerns about domestic investment governance continue to shape the design of the ISDS mechanism in China. This thesis combines close analysis of primary and secondary materials, including newly uncovered government policy documents, with insights from semi-structured interviews with government officials and academics exposed to the policymaking processes. It finds that existing accounts of the key policy shift of the late 1990s, which emphasize China’s economic interests in protecting outward Chinese investments and encouraging inward foreign investments, are inadequate. Instead, an analytical framework incorporating China’s domestic investment governance and policymaking processes is necessary to build a new, more sophisticated explanation. This thesis argues that Chinese policymakers’ decision to expand access to investor-state arbitration emerged from an incremental internal reflection process that began with China’s accession to the ICSID Convention in the early 1990s. The objectives of this policy process were to understand the source of investor-state disputes in China and to develop a plan for how investor-state arbitration could be integrated with existing processes and structures of domestic investment governance. Chinese policymakers’ concerns about domestic investment governance, especially local governments’ interactions with foreign investors, shaped the drafting of ISDS provisions in China’s investment treaties in the late 1990s. The administrative review procedure was integrated with a stronger consent to investor-state arbitration, aimed at dispute prevention, dispute management and regulatory control over local governments. Despite the central role that considerations of domestic investment governance played in the policy shift of the late 1990s, this thesis finds that the policy change did not achieve its intended objectives. Concerns about managing the interface of domestic and international regimes of investment governance continue to shape the evolution of China’s approach to ISDS.
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