Ramos the icebreaker: former Philippine president heads to Hong Kong to test China waters
Ramos in Hong Kong to ‘meet friends’ but not negotiate
Former Philippine president Fidel Ramos arrived in Hong Kong on Monday on a mission to mend fences with Beijing after an international tribunal last month rejected Beijing’s claims over much of the disputed South China Sea.
Acting as a special envoy for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Ramos said he would try to rebuild Manila’s ties with Beijing, but he would not negotiate on the maritime dispute with Chinese officials.
Analysts said Hong Kong was neutral ground for both sides and a good place for Ramos to test the water for Duterte’s government.
Before he left Manila, Ramos said any negotiation would be up to officials, not him.
“What he [Duterte] really said to me was to ‘please renew our friendship with your friends from China’,” the Philippines News Agency quoted him as saying. “I am just the icebreaker.”
The trip comes after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled last month in a case brought by the Philippines that Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea had no legal basis. Beijing refused to take part in the proceedings and said it would ignore the ruling.
Presidential spokesman Ernie Abella confirmed Ramos would go to Hong Kong to “meet with old friends and possibly [play] a few rounds of golf”.
“This may also pave the way for future diplomatic talks,” Agence France-Presse quoted Abella as saying.
A commentary by Xinhua said Ramos’ visit was the first concrete step to “engage in bilateral talks on the South China Sea”, but “decision makers in Manila should know that the fragile relations with Beijing can hardly take another hit”.
Richard Heydarian, assistant professor of international affairs at De La Salle University in Manila, said that in many ways Ramos was the perfect choice for an icebreaker.
“Given the depth of maritime disputes, it’s unlikely that there will be any thaw in relations in the short run and the emphasis now is on measured but sincere gestures of reviving bilateral ties. And Ramos is getting the ball rolling,” Heydarian said
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University, said that if the trip to Hong Kong went well Ramos could be invited to Beijing.
“If not, Ramos could just go back to Manila without losing face,” Zhang said.
Xu Liping, a specialist in Southeast Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Hong Kong was the place to reforge ties between Beijing and Manila. “[Ramos] comes to make dialogue, not to negotiate,” Xu said.
“And Ramos’ visit is to test the water for [Duterte’s negotiators]. Hong Kong is a better place to do that. And he has friends in Hong Kong.”
But Xu did not rule out a secret visit to Beijing by Ramos.
Du Jifeng, another Southeast Asian affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Philippines was unlikely to ignore the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in the talks with China.