By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Philippines wants formal negotiations with China to explore pathways to peace and cooperation, the Southeast Asian nation’s special envoy, Fidel Ramos, said on Friday, after a meeting with former Chinese deputy foreign minister Fu Ying.
Ramos was speaking near the end of a trip to Hong Kong undertaken in a bid to rekindle ties with China, which have been soured by a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
An arbitration court in the Hague ruled on July 12 that China had no historic title over the busy waterway and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights there. The decision infuriated Beijing, which dismissed the court’s authority.
“Informal discussions focused on the need to engage in further talks to build trust and confidence to reduce tensions to pave the way for overall cooperation,” Ramos and Fu said in a joint statement on Friday.
They added that China welcomed Ramos to visit Beijing as the special envoy of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June and has signaled a greater willingness to engage with China than his predecessor.
“It’s not really a breakthrough in a sense that there is no ice here in Hong Kong to break but the fish we eat… are cooked in delicious recipes,” Ramos, who had earlier referred to his visit as a fishing expedition, told reporters.
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.
The statement added that both Beijing and Manila would seek to promote fishing cooperation, marine preservation, and tourism but made no specific mention of the South China Sea or the ruling, and did not set a time frame for possible talks.
Ramos said neither side asserted its own sovereignty over disputed areas in the South China Sea, such as the Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef.
“There was no discussion on that particular aspect, except to mention equal fishing rights,” said Ramos.
The statement said the discussions were held in a private capacity, and Ramos said later other back channel talks with China were underway.
“We hope this type of exchange can assist China and the Philippines in returning to dialogue and improving relations,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, denying Philippine fishermen access, one of the factors that prompted Manila to seek arbitration.
Ramos was president of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998, when China occupied the submerged Mischief Reef.
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Paul Tait and Christian Schmollinger)