Free Press Journal

China, Philippines hold back channel talks to resolve SCS row



Beijing: The Philippines’ ex-president Fidel Ramos has called for formal talks with China to resolve the South China Sea (SCS) issue after meeting Chinese officials during a visit to Hong Kong in the wake of an international tribunal’s verdict that rejected China’s claims over the area.

Ramos, who was appointed as the special envoy by the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for his contacts in the higher echelons of the Chinese government, held talks with Fu Ying, Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, and Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for SCS Studies in the last few days.

Winding up his five-day visit to Hong Kong, 88-year-old Ramos stressed that his meetings with Fu, a former Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, and Wu, a specialist on South China Sea dispute, were held “in a private capacity”, but said Manila wanted formal talks to avoid further tensions with China and allow the two countries to cooperate in some areas.

Discussions on resolving the territorial dispute would be held, but “as to where this will take place we don’t know yet. We have to go back to Manila to find out the latest developments on the official side”, he was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong media. Acknowledging the talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying last night said that “we noted that Fu Ying and Wu Shicun met with their old friend Ramos in Hong Kong. We hope that communication as such will help China and the Philippines restart dialogue and improve relations”.

At the centre of the conflict between China and the Philippines is Scarborough Shoal which is called as Huangyan Island by China in the SCS over which the international tribunal last month upheld the Philippines right and struck down Beijing’s claims on almost of the SCS. China, which boycotted the tribunal, rejected its verdict and called for bilateral talks with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei which have counter claims over the area to resolve the dispute. Taiwan too has claims over certain parts of the South China Sea.

China also rebuffed assertions by the Philippines, the US, Japan and Australia to implement the tribunal verdict which they said is binding. Relations between Manila and Beijing were strained after the Philippines sought the international arbitration to resolve the dispute.

A statement signed by Ramos, Fu and Wu yesterday said that in addition to marine conservation and fishing rights, the two nations should cooperate on tourism, investment, and cracking down on drugs and corruption. Efforts on issues such as drugs, smuggling and crime are not as tricky as defence and national security and thus more achievable at this point.

Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted Wu as saying that China and the Philippines could explore ways to open the Scarborough Shoal to fishermen from both countries and jointly develop fish farms in the disputed waters. But the Philippines has to respect China’s territorial rights over the shoal, Wu said.

He said Ramos’ fence-mending trip to Hong Kong could help lower tensions raised by the SCS dispute. But Ramos would have to first visit Beijing for talks with Chinese officials to pave the way for Philippine President Duterte to make a formal state visit to Beijing, he said.

Analysts said the consensus reached between Ramos and Fu was crucial to rebuilding confidence between the two nations. De La Salle University assistant professor Richard Javad Heydarian said Ramos’ trip restored a functional level of communication between the two countries.

The visit made room to discuss less politicised areas for cooperation, paving the way for more high-stakes talks between Beijing and Manila, he said.