Ramos reassured on Spratlys issue

John Kohut

PHILIPPINE President Mr Fidel Ramos said yesterday that he was convinced China would not use its new-found economic might to settle territorial claims through military force, and revealed that Manila and Beijing would enter into co-operative defence agreements.

''The Philippines Government and people are comfortable with the growth of China and we'd like to see China a stable and prosperous partner for all of the countries of the Asia Pacific region,'' Mr Ramos said.

He was speaking a day after holding more than two hours of talks with Chinese President Mr Jiang Zemin, who assured Mr Ramos that Beijing would settle differences with its neighbours peacefully. This included disputes over the Spratly Islands.

The islands, located in the South China Sea, are claimed by six Asian countries, including China and the Philippines, and are important strategically and for their oil producing potential.

Asian officials have expressed concern that as China modernises, its military - whose budget has been growing steadily - might choose to settle conflicts by force.

Mr Ramos said: ''The Chinese Government, through President Jiang, said they would shelve the conflict [over the Spratly Islands], but join in the peaceful development of the islands in the South China Sea.

''We were given the assurance that China would not use her economic strength for the purpose of aggression and harassment, and we are very appreciative of that statement.'' Mr Ramos said that China and the Philippines were exploring the possibility of co-ordinating defence supplies, either through counter-trade or co-production.

In Hanoi, Vietnam restated its claims to the Spratlys, as well as the Chinese-held Paracel islands also in the South China Sea.

A legislator said two official delegations had been sent to the Spratlys this month.

At the weekend, National Assembly vice-chairman Mr Dang Quan Thuy said: ''In the current complex world situation, it is the sacred duty of the Vietnamese armed forces and people to defend full national sovereignty over Truong Sa [the Spratlys].'' The official Vietnam News Agency said Mr Thuy made his remarks during a visit by a team of senior officials and scientists to mark the 18th anniversary of the takeover of the Spratlys by a reunified Vietnam from the defeated South Vietnamese regime.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Ramos and his delegation left for Shanghai. Tomorrow he will go to Guangzhou for a one-day visit.

''This will be a learning experience, as a major objective of our visit is to discover the factors contributing to China's phenomenal economic growth,'' Mr Ramos said.

He said he had no further information about Premier Mr Li Peng, who had to cancel a meeting with Mr Ramos on Monday because of illness.

As for his impressions of Mr Jiang, Mr Ramos said the Chinese President impressed him as being sympathetic to the Philippines' economic development aspirations. He also said Mr Jiang was quite proficient in English, had a good eye for beauty, was conversant with Shakespeare, had a warm personality, and was fond of music, especially pre-World War II songs.