Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos arrived in Hong Kong late Monday in a bid to “rekindle” ties with China as a special envoy to the country after an international tribunal rejected Beijing’s historic claims to much of the South China Sea.
Ramos, 88, stressed that he had no authority to negotiate with Chinese officials, but said that formal bilateral talks on the maritime disputed between the two countries would likely take place “in the near future.”
“Please do not make any mistake. I am not going there to negotiate. That belongs to the officials,” Ramos was quoted by the state-run Philippines News Agency as saying at a news conference ahead of his departure.
“I am just the icebreaker to warm up again, our good, friendly, neighborly relations with China and that’s all I have to do. Maybe that’s all I can do,” he added.
Ramos was accompanied by former first lady Amelita “Ming” Ramos, former Interior and Local Government Secretary Rafael Alunan III, veteran journalist Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana and Ramos’ grandson, Sam Jones, who serves as trustee of the Ramos Peace and Development Foundation. He was slatted to spend five days in Hong Kong.
The former Philippine leader accepted an offer late last month to be a special envoy to China by new President Rodrigo Duterte after the tribunal’s decision on July 12. He had earlier appeared hesitant to accept the post, citing his advanced age.
The July 12 case by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague
Beijing has blasted the court’s decision, calling the proceedings as a “farce” and labeling the ruling “waste paper.” China claims virtually the entire strategic waterway, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims.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.
An editorial published by China’s official Xinhua News Agency on Monday praised Ramos as a “revered statesman” and the “best choice for the job,” but warned that relations “could hardly take another hit.”
Duterte, who took office in June, 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.Duterte has appeared more conciliatory toward Beijing than his predecessor who initiated the case, President Benigno Aquino III. Duterte has also been critical of Washington’s security policies in the region, saying during the election campaign 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.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.
Ramos experience with the South China Sea issue can be traced back to early 1995, when he 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.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.