Guest Blog by Michael Hwang: Foreword, for Nottage, Ali, Jetin & Teramura (eds) New Frontiers in Asia-Pacific International Arbitration and Dispute Resolution (Wolters Kluwer, end-2020)

Written by: Dr Michael Hwang SC

This is a book which looks forward to possible future outcomes in the development of cross-border dispute resolution in the Asia-Pacific region, focusing on major economies in East and South Asia, as well as neighbouring countries such as Australia which are closely linked economically and geographically. The principal questions posed are: (a) whether international commercial arbitration can improve its attractiveness through law reform and case law development, overcoming criticisms about cost and delay; (b) whether growing concerns about ISDS issues in current investment treaties will lead to Asian states to become rule-makers in international investment law, rather than continue as rule takers; (c) whether innovations in existing or new fields can assist the Asia-Pacific region to develop international dispute settlement mechanisms further. It is therefore an exciting book that challenges existing procedures and frameworks for cross-border dispute resolution both in commercial as well as in treaty arbitration, rather than being another book which is simply descriptive of the existing mechanisms (valuable as such books might be).

There are clearly catalysts for change within the existing framework of dispute resolution in Asia, and several could be real game changers, like China’s Belt and Road initiative (examined in detail in Chapter 7) and the Singapore Convention on Mediation (Chapter 14). The team of writers specially assembled for this project have impressive credentials, led by the prolific and perceptive Professor Luke Nottage, and supported by several authors whom I have the privilege of knowing personally, and whose work I can wholeheartedly recommend as being worth reading, both for their knowledge and experience, but particularly for their insight.

The various authors are not simply writing about existing practices and procedures in the region, but are examining the situation on the ground with a critical eye, and making informed observations about where changes are needed and educated guesses about the chances of reforms being successful, and the consequences if they are not. It has been written in the time of COVID-19 and accordingly points out the special challenges to the field of international dispute resolution in this unprecedented situation. Those include whether lawyers can adapt to new technological solutions to overcome the difficulties of conducting virtual hearings, and whether players in the field of dispute resolution can continue to afford the time and cost of long drawn-out forensic procedures to resolve the inevitable disputes that have been caused by the pandemic, or whether there will be added impetus to use mediation in place of confrontation. There are also protectionist issues affecting the future of maintaining the rule of law in settling cross-border commercial disputes. Local judges might be influenced by the fact that certain apparent breaches of contract have been caused by events beyond the control of their local businesspeople, and the law may become stretched or even disregarded for what may be perceived to be a fairer commercial solution, when performance of a contractual obligation has been rendered impossible in the light of conditions brought on by the pandemic. Such situations could lead possibly to foreign judgments and/or foreign arbitration awards not being recognised or enforced, relying on an overly liberal interpretation of the doctrine of public policy to justify such non-enforcement.

There are also challenges arising from internal social and political challenges in certain Asian jurisdictions such as Malaysia and Hong Kong, where rule of law issues may affect investor confidence in those territories. This mistrust of the application of the rule of law will likely also lead to an international lack of confidence in the reliability of the dispute resolution system of the countries concerned, and Hong Kong in particular may find it difficult to maintain the hitherto proud record of independence and efficiency of its courts and arbitral tribunals. And there are legacy challenges which were there in several Asian countries before Covid-19 and remain as challenges to be overcome, without which their attractiveness as international investment and commercial centres will surely decrease if the legacy problems are not resolved.

The best introduction to this book is actually to start from the succinct final chapter (Chapter 15) jointly authored by Professors Anselmo Reyes, Shahla Ali and Nobumichi Teramura. This gives an excellent summary of the aims and contents of the 14 preceding chapters, and will highlight to readers which chapters might be of particular interest and therefore help determine in which order to read which chapters, although all 14 are worth reading.
I therefore congratulate Professors Nottage, Ali, Jetin and Teramura and their team of other authors on producing a timely and lively study. It will certainly stimulate ideas and discussion among its readers and perhaps also contribute to some positive changes in the jurisdictions which are the subject of this critical study.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.