HONG KONG • Former Philippine leader Fidel Ramos said yesterday he would meet contacts with links to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a trip to Hong Kong intended to improve ties between Manila and Beijing.
Relations have cooled since an Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague ruled last month that China's claims over most of the South China Sea were invalid, in a sweeping victory for the Philippines which brought the case.
Mr Ramos - a long-time advocate of closer Philippine-Chinese ties - was sent as a conciliatory envoy by new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, but has been vague about his itinerary.
"My job is to look for some old friends who have links to the high officials in Beijing, although most of them have retired," Mr Ramos, who was president from 1992 to 1998, told reporters yesterday after arriving on Monday night.
Asked if they had links to Mr Xi, he replied: "I'm sure they have."
He said he was not sure if he would be travelling on to Beijing, adding that it depends on instructions from Manila.
Mr Ramos, 88, was also not clear about who he would be meeting. The only contact he named was Dr Wu Shicun, president of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies. "I'm here on a fishing expedition and will play a little golf," Mr Ramos said.
Duterte spokesman Ernie Abella has said the trip could "pave the way for future diplomatic talks".
Philippine-Chinese ties have frayed in recent years due to growing tensions over Beijing's claims to almost all of the South China Sea. China has refused to recognise last month's tribunal decision.
Recent satellite photographs show China appears to have built aircraft hangars that could accommodate any fighter jet in its air force on artificial islands it is building on reefs in the area, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.
Mr Ramos emphasised the long history of exchanges and close relationship between China and the Philippines in culture and people- to-people communication, adding that Chinese people discovered the Philippines more than 100 years before the Europeans did, Xinhua news agency reported yesterday.
"I have always been optimistic and looking for the best results. But, of course, that also depends on the attitude of the Chinese officials," he said, adding that his Chinese friends include successful businessmen.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS