The Pervasive Problem of Special Economic Zones for International Economic Law : Tax, Investment, and Trade Issues

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)567-588
Journal / PublicationWorld Trade Review
Issue number4
Online published29 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020


Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have been a huge success and brought a great number of benefits to the whole world. With different kinds of incentives, SEZs have created favorable conditions in order to attract foreign investors. In this article, several specific issues are considered. First, whether SEZs are legal under international economic law (IEL). Second, what kind of specific issues they raise under IEL. Thirdly, what measures governments can take in order not to be challenged. The first section illustrates the definition of SEZs and their rapid development; the second section will consider the interaction between SEZs and international tax law, especially the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) Action 5; the third section focuses on the relationship between SEZs and investment agreements and the disputes raised as a consequence; the fourth section will talk about SEZs and the World Trade Organization (WTO), as some incentives used by SEZs may not be compatible with WTO regulations. The article shows that SEZs can be harmful. For one thing, tax incentives applied in SEZs may lead to tax evasion, and the competitive circumstances between states may be changed. For another thing, the frequent changes of policies in SEZs may result in indirect expropriation, and investor-state arbitration under investment treaties can be used by foreign investors to protect their SEZ-related benefits. In addition, although WTO rules do not explicitly regulate SEZs, a number of measures, such as subsidies, do fall under the ambit of WTO rules, and these measures cannot be discriminatory.

Research Area(s)

  • BEPS, BITs, expropriation, SCM Agreement, SEZs, subsidies, taxation, WTO