Former Philippine president Fidel Ramos’ five-day visit to Hong Kong, which ended on Aug 12, is widely seen as producing a positive result that could help ease tensions between Beijing and Manila.
Bilateral ties between the two sides had been jeopardized by an arbitration case over the South China Sea disputes unilaterally initiated by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.
On Aug 10, Ramos met in Hong Kong with Fu Ying, foreign affairs chief of China’s top legislature, and Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a think tank, according to a statement released after the talks.
The statement, signed by Ramos, Fu and Wu, described the meeting as one between “old friends” and said it had taken place “in a friendly atmosphere”.
“The informal discussions focused on the need to engage in further talks to build trust and confidence to reduce tensions to pave the way for overall cooperation for the benefit of both their peoples and the region,” the statement said.
Manila wants formal discussions with Beijing “at the appropriate time” to explore pathways to peace and cooperation, the statement added.
At a press conference held on the last day of his Hong Kong visit, Ramos, acting as the special envoy of Duterte, said the three had not discussed territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but had talked about fishing rights.
The 88-year-old said China has invited him to come to Beijing for negotiation over the South China Sea dispute at an “appropriate time”. He said he hoped that a second round of discussions would take place soon, adding that the venue for further talks had not been decided yet.
Commenting on the Ramos visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing hopes such communications could “help restore China-Philippines dialogue and improve bilateral relations”.
Hua also said in a statement that “China sticks to an open attitude toward all means of contact between China and the Philippines, and welcomes Mr Ramos to China”.
Li Hak-yin, a lecturer in the department of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said this is a particularly critical moment for China and the Philippines. Ramos’ Hong Kong trip sent a message to the Chinese government of his country’s willingness to start negotiations, Li said.
Li believes that by sending Fu Ying to meet Ramos in Hong Kong, Beijing has expressed goodwill and sent a good signal to the Philippines. He predicted that a formal visit by Duterte to China may happen within six to nine months.
Li suggested the two governments should strengthen cooperation on cultural fronts, in academic exchanges, in the tourism industry, and especially economic integration. “Close economic cooperation between China and the Philippines could help promote their bilateral relations,” he said.
In a similar vein, Chen Qinghong, a researcher in Southeast Asian and Philippine studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said that China and the Philippines can start communications on easier topics first to create an atmosphere for dialogue on sensitive issues.
However, he added that China’s stance on sovereignty will not change, since sovereignty is not a kind of commodity to be traded.
Li Guoqiang, deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies, said China would like to see positive signals from the new Philippine government.
“Through the visit of Ramos, the Philippines is expected to hear China’s voice and understand Beijing’s concerns over South China Sea issues, to improve bilateral ties,” he said.
The Philippine side has also viewed Ramos’ visit to Hong Kong positively. Former Philippine foreign affairs secretary Delia Albert told China Daily Asia Weekly that she thinks the Hong Kong meetings could bring progress in the relationship.
“I’m very happy to see Ramos visiting Hong Kong, because he has many good friends there and he is also the main promoter of the Boao Forum. More contact is very good,” she said.
The Boao Forum for Asia is a gathering of business and government leaders held every year in South China’s Hainan province.
Richard Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about what comes next after Ramos’ trip.
“Ramos hopes to get the ball rolling during his Hong Kong visit, paving the way for normalization of ties,” he said, adding that the Philippines is looking for investments from China for its domestic development.
An Baijie contributed to this story.
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