Fidel V. Ramos, the 12th president of the Philippines, recently flew to China in his role as special envoy for the 16th president, Rodrigo R. Duterte. His mission, according to early news reports, is “to resolve the dispute following an international tribunal’s ruling against China’s claims” to some 90 percent of the South China Sea.
That is not a realistic expectation. It will probably take decades before the dispute can be resolved. What Ramos will immediately try to achieve has to be a lot more modest. He needs only to break the ice that has grown thick between the two countries.
If there is a Filipino negotiator who has enough international prestige, experience and savvy to open a dialogue with the Chinese government and lead it delicately toward a long-term and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship between the two countries — it can only be Ramos.
For Ramos is arguably the best of the 15 presidents that the Philippines had before Duterte. When he took over from the administration of Cory Aquino, the Philippine economy had been crushed by the impact of at least half a dozen coup attempts, and the country suffered chronic power failures due to neglect of the energy sector. He fixed these problems and launched a period of economic boom by reforming and liberalizing the economy.
He was a peace president. He sought and secured peace agreements with military rebels and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The final peace agreement between the Ramos government and the MNLF was facilitated by Indonesia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and is widely regarded as a major legacy of the tenure of Ali Alatas as foreign minister. It remains the only effective peace agreement covering Muslim Mindanao up to this day.
Later Ramos opened negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway faction of the MNLF. That process was maintained after Ramos completed his tenure and has been ongoing for almost two decades.
Since 2001, he has regularly traveled to China, being an initiator of and an eminent participant to the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), a high-level platform based at Boao, Hainan where leaders of government, business and the academe from 20 Asian-Pacific countries discuss crucial regional and global issues. His network of China contacts must be wide and deep.
This will not be the first time that he deals with a Chinese government that has territorial and sovereignty issues with the Philippines. In response to a Chinese attempt to take Philippine-held Mischief Reef by stealth in 1996, he launched high-level dialogue with President Jiang Zemin, followed by a regional diplomatic initiative that eventually culminated in the signing of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea several years later.
This time he will be dealing with a different China. No longer punctilious about its peaceful rise as a world power, this is a China that has ferociously defied the ruling of an international tribunal on its hyperbolic claim to almost all of the South China, and has already managed to reduce Asean to meek silence on that issue. This is a China that has exponentially expanded and modernized its military establishment, whose military officials talk cockily of their willingness to wade into “inadvertent confrontation” with the US Navy.
Indeed, this is a China that has been sending bombers, fighters and other military aircraft to fly over contested maritime territory in the South China Sea. Notable among these aircraft is the H-6K, a long-distance bomber, which, according to Chinese publicity, is capable of threatening Guam, a US island territory with a military base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Since 2010 or maybe even earlier, China has been sending flotillas of fishing boats, at least some of them manned by government-sponsored militia. These are escorted by armed coast guard ships deep into the East and South China Seas. China has been carrying out this expansionary tactic in contested waters in the China Seas as well as in undisputed territorial waters of Malaysia and Indonesia. Probably the idea is that if the affected countries were lulled into tolerating these stealth invasions, they could acquire some kind of legitimacy.
Even more alarming are the recent cyber attacks of apparently Chinese origin on computers at the Philippine Department of Justice and those of the international law firm that represented the Philippines in the Hague litigation. At about the same time, a hacker group that claimed to be based in China took over the computers at two of Vietnam’s biggest airports and the official website of the Vietnam Airlines so that they displayed visuals with captions that insult Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea issue.
It is just possible that these hackers are playing the same role that the militia-cum-fishermen have assumed in the South China Sea. They are civilians, private groups serving an expansive, aggressive government policy, who can be disowned when the government stands accused of their aggression.
This, then, is the China that Ramos is dealing with — no longer the gentler, more reasonable China of 1996 that was personified by the simpatico President Jiang Zemin, but a pugnacious, bellicose China smarting from a recent international humiliation. No wonder many voices have been raised in the Philippines and Vietnam against his going to China to negotiate. Vietnamese observers have frantically warned that Ramos is walking into a trap, citing a 1974 incident when South Vietnam was negotiating with China when a Chinese force invaded a South Vietnam-held island in the Paracels.
But Ramos is not afraid to negotiate — even with a saber-rattling China. He has friendships all over China, and I am sure he believes in the natural decency of the Chinese people. On the other hand, as a young lieutenant in Korea in 1952, he successfully led a Philippine expeditionary platoon against a Chinese force in honorable combat — so displays of military strength do not impress him.
Moreover he knows in his heart that China needs a deal as much as the Philippines does. The Philippines needs help to exploit its own exclusive economic zone, and it wants Chinese financing to refurbish its infrastructures. China needs to recover lost international prestige by partnering on a mutually beneficial basis with the very country that brought it to court in The Hague. And China needs to show the world, especially its smaller neighbors, that a territorial and sovereignty dispute does not foreclose its entering into fruitful collaboration between equals.
Such a deal is very much possible. Ramos will go for it. Meanwhile, settlement of the dispute can wait for as long as a generation or two.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.