Ex-Philippine leader Ramos travels to Hong Kong as 'icebreaker' with China

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (right) speaks to former president Fidel Ramos at the Testimonial Dinner Reception in Manila on July 14, 2016.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (right) speaks to former president Fidel Ramos at the Testimonial Dinner Reception in Manila on July 14, 2016. PHOTO: AFP/PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATION OPERATIONS OFFICE

MANILA (REUTERS) - Former Philippine president Fidel Ramos on Monday (Aug 8) departed on a five-day trip to Hong Kong to meet "old friends" and rekindle ties with China soured by a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

In July, an arbitration court in the Hague ruled that China had no historical rights over the busy waterway and had breached the Philippines' sovereign rights with various actions there, infuriating Beijing, which dismissed the case.

"This may pave the way for future diplomatic talks," Mr Ernesto Abella, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, said in a text message, adding that Ramos would "meet old friends and possibly play a few rounds of golf" in the Chinese territory.

Mr Ramos, 88, who described his role as "an icebreaker", accepted an offer from Mr Duterte to be special envoy to China after the Hague court's ruling on July 12. "That is not my mission," Mr Ramos said, however, when asked if he would raise the topic of the ruling.

"It is not me who will raise that issue," he told a news conference in Manila before his flight. "My mission is to rekindle ties with China."

Officials of both countries would hold formal talks, he added.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea, believed to be rich in energy deposits.

Mr Ramos' trip represented "the first concrete step" for both sides to engage and "could open a new chapter in settling disputes", said China's state news agency, Xinhua. "Ramos is probably the best choice for the job of breaking ice, since he is a revered statesman widely respected in his own country and in Asia," it added in a commentary.

Mr Ramos was president from 1992 to 1998, when China occupied the submerged Mischief Reef, building structures it said its fishermen would use.

In 2012, China seized the Scarborough Shoal, denying Philippine fishermen access to a rich fishing ground, and prompting Manila to file the arbitration case.

China has ignored the court's ruling that none of its reefs and holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Mr Ramos did not identify the "old friends" he will meet in the former British colony, but described them as either retired or not in an official capacity, although they could help influence China's leaders in Beijing. "I still have no authority to travel to Beijing," he said."I am retired. I am done with negotiations."