When Fidel Ramos, the former Philippine president, arrived in Hong Kong on Monday pledging to find “common points of interest” between Beijing and Manila in their territorial dispute in the South China Sea, he opened the latest chapter in a seven-decade career marked by savvy and achievement.

Ramos, a special envoy for Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte in the maritime controversy, visited the city one month after a ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands that rejected China’s claims. China blasted the ruling and has vowed not to back down.

But on Tuesday, news agency Xinhua ran an editorial saying the former president’s arrival in Hong Kong had brought “a whiff of hope” for a fresh diplomatic start.

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The former president, 88, said on Tuesday he would spend his five days in the city visiting old friends with ties to the central government.

He spoke of those “common points of interest” between the countries and held up photos of President Xi Jinping (習近平) that he said were taken when the Chinese leader visited the Philippines in his youth.

On Friday, Ramos revealed in a statement that his “informal discussions” with those friends stressed that building trust was “very important to the long-term beneficial relationship between the Philippines and China”. He added they all valued “the prospect of further cooperation” and noted China welcomed him to come to Beijing as Duterte’s envoy.

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Ramos’ unique role in one of the region’s most grave and sensitive matters attests to his status at home and abroad.

By tapping Ramos to be his envoy, Duterte was drawing on the former president’s stature, analysts said.

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described Ramos as “pragmatic when dealing with Beijing” during his own presidency and still well respected.

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“He’s very active as an elder statesman,” she said, citing his efforts in launching, in 2001, the Boao Forum for Asia, an international NGO to boost regional dialogue for economic development.

Glaser noted Ramos could “lay the foundation for a better relationship, but his task is not to negotiate specific deals”. She said he could feel out the Chinese on various positions regarding the South China Sea, such as whether Beijing would “drop its demand that Manila accept Chinese sovereignty as a precondition”.

Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, went further, calling Ramos “an ideal choice” for special envoy.

Heydarian said Ramos enjoyed the “utmost trust and confidence” of the Philippine leader.

“Ramos also has a good track record of dealing with China and South China Sea disputes,” he said. “During his term, Ramos handled disputes very differently from other [Philippine] administrations, and adopted multiple approaches to develop a constructive relationship with China, including high-level dialogue with the Jiang Zemin (江澤民) administration.”

Like Glaser, Heydarian believed Ramos’ task was not to negotiate but to restart dialogue. “The aim is to lay down the foundation normalising frosty relations,” he said, noting the Philippines was keen to attract Chinese investment.

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“The current relationship between the two countries is extremely toxic, and this visit hopefully could start restoring some goodwill,” he added.

Heydarian regarded the choice of Hong Kong for Ramos’ visit as “a favourably quasi-neutral location” that could precede a more formal meeting “with higher leadership inside the Chinese mainland”.

He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Ramos’ visit could prepare the groundwork for Duterte and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) to meet at the Asean summit in September. It would be, he said, “a first step in a long journey of reviving Philippine-Chinese ties”.

But Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in the US, was less optimistic. He said Ramos was “likely to return to Manila empty-handed” primarily because of how the two sides viewed the tribunal’s decision.

“While China considers the ruling ‘a piece of waste paper’, the Philippines insists that the ruling should serve as the foundation for bilateral talks now,” he said. “So while the Chinese government welcomes Duterte’s initiatives and Ramos’ visit, the opposite positions regarding the ruling will hinder any real progress in the relationship. The ice is still too thick to break now.”

Ramos is no stranger to long journeys. Born in 1928 in the northern Philippine province of Pangasinan to Narciso Ramos, a five-term national lawmaker and former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and his wife Angela Valdez, an educator, Ramos’ career spans seven decades.

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He studied civil engineering at National University in Manila and later enrolled at the US Military Academy on a Philippine government scholarship. He graduated from West Point in 1950.

Upon returning home, Ramos steadily ascended through the Philippine military and held every rank possible – a feat that remains unmatched.

Ramos’ appeal cuts a variety of directions; he is the only ever Protestant president in one of the world’s most staunchly Catholic nations. A long-time cigar aficionado with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, he was known as “Eddie Ramos” to his American friends during his time in the US.

And his enthusiasm for his military past – evidenced this week when he wore a hat bearing several insignia he was awarded over the years – endears him to many in a country that exalts strong men such as boxer Manny Pacquiao and the recently-elected Duterte.

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He also has a reputation as a wily operator who has kept analysts and political opponents guessing.

In 1986, as chief of the Philippine national police, he broke from then-president Ferdinand Marcos, who had just been re-elected in a campaign marred by fraud allegations. Joining defence secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramos pledged loyalty to Corazon Aquino, who had run against Marcos. Aquino eventually became president after the People Power Revolution in which Filipinos peacefully took to the streets and forced the Marcos family to flee the country.

Under Aquino, Ramos served as chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces and then as defence minister. In 1991, as Aquino wound down her presidency, he declared his candidacy to succeed her, and won, taking office in 1992.

As president, Ramos rolled out a five-point programme called Philippines 2000, signalling his administration’s priorities, the foremost of which was peace and stability.

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In his first state-of-the-nation address on July 27, 1992, he appeared to anticipate regional tensions flaring up.

“The end of the cold war may have eased the danger of a nuclear confrontation,” he said. “But, ironically, the loosening of big-power tensions makes more likely the breaking-out of quarrels within the region.”

Nearly 20 years on, in May 2012, Ramos offered more specific insights on the South China Sea dispute in a piece for the Manila Bulletin.

He wrote: “Apparently, China’s objective is to compel the Philippines and other claimants to accept a resolution of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea disputes through bilateral negotiations. This strategy is meant to ‘save face’ by not succumbing to the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (signed by Asean and China in 2002) which calls for multilateral agreement.”

With Ramos now serving as an intermediary between Manila and Beijing, all eyes will be on the elder statesman to see what progress he might set in motion.