Former Philippines president Fidel Ramos has been invited to Beijing for formal discussions about the two nations’ maritime disputes after “ice-breaking” talks with a senior Chinese diplomat in Hong Kong.
Recently elected President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Mr Ramos as a special envoy for talks with China, after suggesting he is willing to take a softer line on territorial disputes with Beijing in exchange for investment in the Philippines and joint exploitation of natural resources.
Tensions between the two countries deteriorated under previous president Benigno Aquino. He stood firm in the face of Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance in the South China Sea, angering China by bringing a legal case against it at an international maritime tribunal in The Hague.
The tribunal, which Beijing refused to acknowledge, ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favour last month.
The Hong Kong meetings were short on substance but long on symbolism.
Dressed in his veteran’s uniform Mr Ramos, a former soldier who fought in the Korean war before becoming president from 1992 to 1998, joked that he had tried to maximise his chances of success on this “fishing expedition” by arriving in Hong Kong on an auspicious date.
“I’m 88 and we came on August 8 and that’s a lucky set of numbers . . . in Chinese culture,” he said.
Mr Ramos said on Friday that he held friendly discussions with Fu Ying, the head of the foreign affairs committee of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, and Wu Shicun, the president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, but that there was “not really a breakthrough”.
In a joint statement, which emphasised that the participants met “in their private capacity”, both sides agreed on “the need to engage in further talks to build trust and confidence” and “reduce tensions”.
Mr Ramos said that neither side discussed sovereignty issues nor mentioned the landmark victory by the Philippines against China in The Hague.
But he expressed hope that there would be a “phase two” of the rapprochement with Beijing and that bilateral relations could be further improved through other back-channels such as Carlos Chan, a Philippines snack tycoon with significant investment in China though his Oishi brand.
Euan Graham, a security analyst at the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, said that both sides were “feeling out each other’s positions” but there was “no prospect of a rapid breakthrough”.
“They are coming from a low base, with no effective back channel in place for most of the Aquino administration,” he said.
Mr Graham added that while Beijing has recently turned its ire, directly and indirectly, on the likes of Vietnam, another South China Sea claimant, and Australia, which called on China to abide by The Hague ruling, the Philippines seems to have been spared in order to give room for Mr Duterte to reach a possible compromise solution.
“The Philippines is at the eye of the storm right now and it’s enjoying rather calm weather,” he said.
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