First steps to mending fractured ties between China and the Philippines

Talks with Fidel Ramos were a start, but trust had been all but destroyed, making restored relations dependent on careful navigation of difficult decisions and resolute effort

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 1:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 4:40am

There is nothing straight-forward about mending the fractured ties between China and the Philippines. The South China Sea issue has caused tension that has damaged trust and affected trade, tourism and investment. Exploratory steps made by former president Fidel Ramos in recent talks in Hong Kong have created possibilities that can be built on, but a breakthrough will take effort and time. Pragmatism and a judicious approach towards a resolution offer the best chance of success.

Over five days, Ramos met Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the National Peoples’ Congress’ foreign affairs committee, and Wu Shicun, the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies think-tank. The meetings were held in private and they ended only with a statement that the nations needed to cooperate on fishing rights, marine conservation, tourism, investment and tackling drugs and corruption. No direct mention of the territorial dispute was made, or of July’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favour of a case brought by Manila against Beijing. The low-key start to the process shows an understanding of the complexities.

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Those difficulties were not of the making of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office with relations with China soured by the policies of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino. Backed by the US, they included taking the South China Sea case to the tribunal in The Hague and forging a new military agreement with Washington. That led to a weakening of Chinese trade and drying up of investment. With an eye to repairing the damage, Duterte has offered bilateral talks with Beijing, a reversal of the multilateral position adopted by Aquino.

But a single round of talks cannot break the ice; Manila has not rejected the court’s ruling as Beijing has done and the American pact has already been approved by the Philippine congress. Duterte has to balance the infrastructure and economic needs offered by China against long-standing links to the US.

Hong Kong was an ideal location for the talks, offering a neutral venue that others involved in disputes should consider for peace-making. Ramos will need to hold more meetings, the aim being for higher-level negotiations. There is a possibility of Premier Li Keqiang and Duterte preparing further groundwork at the Asean summit in September. Trust has been all but destroyed, though, making restored relations dependent on careful navigation of difficult decisions and resolute effort.