By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Former Philippines President Fidel Ramos on Tuesday named the head of a Chinese government think-tank among the experts and officials he hoped to meet on a trip to rekindle ties with China soured by a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
On July 12, an arbitration court in the Hague ruled that China had no historic title over the busy waterway and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights there, infuriating China, which had dismissed the case.
“I’ve always been a very optimistic person, always looking for the best results,” Ramos told reporters in Hong Kong. “But of course that also depends on the attitude of the Chinese officials.”
Ramos gave no details of his itinerary or of those he planned to meet, except for Wu Shicun, who heads the National Institute for South China Sea Studies think-tank, based on China’s southern island of Hainan.
Asked about others, such as China’s former deputy minister for Foreign Affairs Fu Ying, Ramos said he did not know yet.
“They all have links with Beijing, because some of them are already retired but elevated to the parliament as chairman of this and that committee.”
Ramos said he sought to improve economic and tourism links, such as by allowing “more fishing in the common fishing ground” of the Scarborough shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“The idea is to use the South China Sea as a place to save lives, but not to kill people or to destroy lives,” he added.
China’s 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, denying Philippine fishermen access, was among the factors that prompted Manila to seek arbitration.
But 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.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which more than $5 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.
Ramos, 88, who described his role as an “icebreaker”, is known for an impromptu duet of Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ with former Chinese president Jiang Zemin at a 1996 banquet.
His trip represents “the first concrete step” in engagement for both sides and “could open a new chapter in settling disputes,” China’s state news agency, Xinhua, said in a commentary.
Ramos was Philippines president from 1992 to 1998, when China occupied the submerged Mischief Reef.
(Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)