Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Breaking the Ice in the South China Sea

Commentary from Project Syndicate

By Fidel Ramos

US Navy personnel stand in front of a guided missile launcher during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and US Navy dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT 2014) aboard the USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing on June 28, 2014. The United States and the Philippines kicked off joint naval exercises in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing, amid tense territorial rows between China and its neighbours. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

MANILA – Three months ago, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to the resources in the West Philippine Sea (also known as the South China Sea), and thus that the Philippines has exclusive rights to the territory. China rejected the ruling, and an icy chill overcame the once-friendly bilateral relationship. It is time to bring back some warmth.

Soon after the ruling, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unexpectedly designated me, at age 88, to be my country’s special envoy to China, with the goal of doing just that. Thanks to Hong Kong bankers (including my personal friend Wai Sun Ng of Jibsen Capital), my first point of contact was Fu Ying, who has served as China’s ambassador to the Philippines and as Deputy Foreign Minister.

I was fortunate to meet Fu, who is now Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress. She not only possesses detailed knowledge of the issues surrounding the South China/West Philippine Sea, but is also well informed about Philippine culture and politics. In our first exploratory meeting, I also made contact with the similarly knowledgeable Wu Shicun, President of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

The atmosphere at our meeting was friendly. In their private capacities, Wu and Fu openly discussed the need to find a way forward that would ensure enduring peace and closer cooperation between China and the Philippines.

Disputed Territory within the area of The Philippines, China and Vietnam. Editable Clip Art. - Copyright: Crystal Eye Studio /

Disputed Territory within the area of The Philippines, China and Vietnam. Editable Clip Art. – Copyright: Crystal Eye Studio /

But, reflecting the deep sensitivity of the territorial issue on both sides, our meeting’s primary conclusion was that reducing tensions would require more discussions aimed at boosting trust and confidence. Such discussions would, over time, have to address a wide range of issues.

For starters, China and the Philippines should agree on the need for marine preservation. To avoid tensions, fishing in the West Philippine Sea should be carefully managed. In fact, cooperation on fishing should be added to the bilateral agenda, as should joint efforts to confront drug trafficking, smuggling, and corruption. Mutually beneficial efforts to improve tourism and encourage trade and investment, and to promote exchanges among think tanks and academic institutions on relevant issues, also hold substantial promise.

These priorities are reflected in the recommendations that I presented to Duterte. The Philippines must, in my view, expedite the appointment and confirmation of an ambassador to China, in order to continue exploratory talks and seize opportunities to build trust and find common ground. As we make progress on that front, we must pursue agreements on issues relating to fishing, tropical fruits, tourism, and infrastructure that support China’s maritime Silk Road initiative in and around the Philippines.

But, throughout all of this, it is vital to remember that the discussions are not just about rocks and atolls; they are about war and peace. Just a year ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution – since approved by 195 UN member states – setting out a long-range strategic framework for avoiding a global armed conflict that could lead to World War III. In our meetings with Chinese actors, my team and I found the resolution to be particularly relevant – a clear reminder of the far-reaching implications of the current tensions.

As we told our Chinese counterparts, “The seas should be used to save and improve our lives, and to ensure mankind’s future survival. They should not be places where peoples are killed and institutions destroyed.” Fortunately, the Chinese accepted and even reiterated this fundamental belief.

In practice, this belief should translate into a commitment to avoid violent confrontation of any kind. A war would do serious damage to the interests of both the Philippines and China, which possesses substantial wealth and military might, but needs peace to transform its economy and deliver a better life to the hundreds of millions of Chinese who still live in poverty. Perhaps more significant, given the central role of the United States in Asian security, any dispute with China could quickly escalate. This stark reality must underpin all discussions about the West Philippine Sea in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Of course, bilateral talks may be contentious at times. But there is plenty of incentive to make progress. Indeed, our geographical proximity makes the search for common ground between China and the Philippines a necessity, not a choice. Re-establishing the kind of long-term, mutually beneficial bilateral relationship that we enjoyed in the past – one that supports peace and sustainable development in our region – must be a priority for both sides.

Fidel V. Ramos, a former president of the Philippines (1992-1998), was a member of the ASEAN Eminent Persons Group that provided the concepts and guidelines for drafting the ASEAN Charter.

© 1995 – 2016 Project Syndicate

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