Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos has accepted a position as special envoy to China after an international tribunal ruled that Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea had no legal basis, local media reports said Sunday.
Ramos reportedly accepted the offer to lead a team that will open bilateral talks with China when he met with President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao City on Saturday night.
“I have been cleared by my doctors at Makati Medical Center,” Ramos, who revealed that he suffered from three serious ailments, including one that impaired the flow of blood to the brain, was quoted as saying.
The former president, 88, had earlier appeared hesitant to accept the post, citing his advanced age.
Widely respected in the region, Ramos has experience on the South China Sea issue, having handled the Manila’s response to Beijing’s 1995 occupation of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Island chain during his 1992 to 1998 term as president.
Duterte, who took office last month, is in a precarious position — despite Manila’s resounding legal victory. He must balance calls for a tougher response to perceived Chinese bullying while also working to repair ties with Beijing, Manila’s biggest trading partner and a key investor.
China has refused to recognize the tribunal’s ruling in the case initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, blasting it as “waste paper.”
Duterte, however, has appeared more conciliatory toward Beijing and critical of Washington’s security policies in the region, saying during the election that he would “shut up” on the dispute if China would pay for railway projects in his country.
Ramos has suggested setting aside the tribunal’s ruling to pursue a “settlement” with China.
Beijing had offered to hold talks “outside of and in disregard” to the international tribunal’s ruling, an overture rejected by Manila.
Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said Tuesday that he had told his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that China’s condition “was not consistent with our constitution and our national interest,” adding Wang warned that if the Philippines insists on China’s compliance to the ruling, “we might be headed for a confrontation.”
In a country-risk brief released after the ruling, IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly wrote that China and the Philippines are likely to seek a negotiated solution to the South China Sea dispute since all states interested are unlikely to want a military confrontation.
According to Richard Javad Heydarian, a regional expert at De La Salle University in Manila, the Ramos choice makes sense for a number of reasons.
“First, he has complete trust and confidence of the president, giving him considerable wiggle room to negotiate a tough deal with China,” Heydarian said. “Second, Ramos is a highly respected statesman, including in China, without any baggage but instead a legacy of deftly dealing with South China Sea disputes in the mid-1990s during the Mischief Reef crisis.”
Heydarian said that Ramos also carries “considerably more experience and geopolitical savvy” than Yasay, who he characterized as “still warming up” to his role as the country’s top diplomat.
In early 1995, Ramos sent warships and fighter planes to Mischief Reef after construction of a Chinese outpost was first spotted at the coral reef just 116 nautical miles (215 km) from the Philippines — well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Despite diplomatic protests by Manila, Beijing at the time insisted these were just storm “shelters” for fishermen. The row later died down after an informal code of conduct was reached months later, but China continued to build up its outpost, ramping up dredging operations in early 2015.
The Mischief Reef outpost now sits on 5,580,000 sq. meters of reclaimed land and boasts facilities, including China’s newest military-grade airstrip in the waters.