Former Philippine leader off 'fishing' in China

Former Philippine president Fidel Ramos left for Hong Kong yesterday on what he described as an "icebreaker" and a "fishing expedition" meant to pave the way for bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing over their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

"I am just the icebreaker, to rekindle, to warm up again our good, friendly, neighbourly relations with China. That's all I have to do, and maybe that's all I can do. But that is a big enough job as I see it, and I'll do my best," Mr Ramos told reporters just before he boarded his plane.

He said no "substantive matters" will be discussed, but he hopes his visit will lead to formal talks between Manila and Beijing "in the near future".

BREAKING THE ICE

I am just the icebreaker, to rekindle, to warm up again our good, friendly, neighbourly relations with China. That's all I have to do, and maybe that's all I can do. But that is a big enough job as I see it, and I'll do my best.

MR FIDEL RAMOS

Mr Ramos and his team will be in Hong Kong for four to five days.

Former interior minister Rafael Alunan and American broadcaster ABC Network's former Beijing station manager Chito Sta Romana are among those accompanying him.

Mr Ramos said President Rodrigo Duterte, who appointed him "special envoy to China", did not give specific instructions.

"What he said was, 'Please just renew our friendship with your friends from China'. That's all."

Mr Ramos said he would meet "old Chinese friends", but declined to name them.

"I knew them as private sector, but I also know them as government. But I also know them as retired, so I don't know what they are right now," he said.

Mr Ramos said he will not bring up a ruling last month by an international tribunal striking down Beijing's claims to over two-thirds of the South China Sea.

On July 12, a five-man Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, constituted under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights over the South China Sea.

China rejected that decision, and said it would not enter into any negotiations with Manila that will bring up that ruling. China's claims overlap with those of the Philippines as well as of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

In jest, Mr Ramos also described his trip as a "fishing expedition… to strengthen our common desire for fish".

He was referring to conflicts between China and the Philippines over fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly chain of rocky outcrops, both in the South China Sea.

Asked if he would raise the issue of harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard of Filipino fishermen venturing near Scarborough, he replied: "If they bring it up."

The 88-year-old Mr Ramos conceded that his age and health had been considered on this trip.

His wife, Mrs Amelita Ramos, 90, will accompany him as "caregiver" to administer "18 separate pills, tablets and capsules".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Former Philippine leader off 'fishing' in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe