Ramos in Hong Kong: already giving up on the South China Sea?

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

By Dung Phan

President Duterte’s special envoy, and former Philippine President, Fidel Ramos has just left for Hong Kong. He is on a mission, “to rekindle, to warm up, again, our good, friendly, neighbourly relations with China,” in the aftermath of the latest round of the two countries territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

The former president has vast experience maintaining good relations with Beijing yet the 88-year-old retired general told reporters that the meeting would be, “a renewal of friendship”, not focusing on “any substantive matters.” Ramos said he wanted to promote economic and tourism links, such as allowing, “more fishing in the common fishing ground” of the Scarborough shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

He expressed an, “optimistic” attitude towards his, “ice-breaker” visit, telling reporters in Hong Kong he has always been “looking for the best results.”

China’s state news agency, Xinhua shared the same sentiment, hoping the visit, “brings a whiff of hope”. The state outlet went further, saying, “Ramos’ visit, which represents the first concrete step on the Philippine side to engage in bilateral talks with China on the South China Sea, could open a new chapter in settling disputes,”

Is Ramos the best choice?

In November 1996, President Jiang Zemin embarked on the first ever visit by a Chinese head of state to the Philippines. One of the highlights of that trip was a karaoke event where he and Ramos enjoyed dancing and singing Western love songs and popular melodies on a Manila Bay cruise. Such a memorable moment, however, did not stop China’s plan to seize the Mischief Reef. Some even said it was lost under Ramos’ presidency.

To explain what happened, back in February 1995 Philippine forces discovered a number of octagonal huts on the Mischief Reef in the Spratlys which China claimed were only “shelters” for Chinese fishermen in the area. While the two presidents were having a good time singing old time favourites like “Love me tender” or “Let me call you sweetheart”, the Chinese were upgrading the facilities.

The Mischief conflict flared up again in November 1998, when aerial photographs taken by the Philippines Air Force detected a 300-metre pier and new barracks which had been converted to an artificial island. The Philippine Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado called them, “a creeping invasion”. Meanwhile a senior Department of Foreign Affairs official gave the view that once China had occupied Mischief Reef and engaged in construction, the Philippines had already lost it.

Manila successfully enlisted unprecedented support from ASEAN members and managed to cultivate friendlier relations with China after this incident. And Philippine officials regarded these diplomatic attempts as a success. Although China did not dismantle what it had built on Mischief Reef, the country promised not to take any further actions in the Spratly Islands.

However in 1997, the Philippines again discovered three Chinese warships and another “hut-like” structure.

Ramos has, at best, a patchy reputation at effectively handling China.

What to expect 

Ramos did not reveal too much about his plan in Hong Kong. Perhaps he will be enjoying, “a few rounds of golf” as he did 21 years ago. But lessons from the past have taught the region’s politicians that cosy diplomatic ties rarely sit well with China’s marine ambitions.

The most recent satellite photographs prove the point. The latest images from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show China appears to have built reinforced aircraft hangars at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs.

Even though there was no sight of military aircraft in the photos, the centre’s analysis report suggests that the hangars have room for, “any fighter jet in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.” It all shows evidence of, “structural strengthening”.

They are far thicker than you would build for any civilian purpose,” said Gregory B. Poling, director of the centre’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. He added that those hangars were, “reinforced to take a strike” and, “more than enough for strategic bombers and refuelers.”

“Except for a brief visit by a military transport plane to Fiery Cross Reef earlier this year, there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts. But the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change,” CSIS believe.

State media are also reporting that China has sent bombers and fighter jets out near the contested South China Sea islands. If it is true then that kind of action can only raise the tension among China, the Philippines and the many other nervous nations in the area.

And if Ramos is honest about his mission, claiming that, “it is not me” who will raise the topic of the tribunal; and if the golf diplomacy is going to replicate the same success as the infamous karaoke, did the Philippines already give up?