The Philippines and China discussed setting up a "two-track" system that would allow them to cooperate in some areas while separately handling "contentious issues" such as their South China Sea territorial dispute, former President Fidel Ramos said Saturday.
Ramos and former interior secretary Rafael Alunan discussed the proposal at meetings with Chinese representatives in Hong Kong on a trip aimed at improving relations.
Ramos, a longtime advocate of closer ties, said the talks were "very hospitable... very encouraging, in the sense that we have a common interest" in such goals as fighting global warming.
They met with Fu Ying, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the National People's Congress, China's communist-controlled legislature.
Alunan said both sides discussed "encouraging track two or think-tank exchanges... where we will be discussing contentious issues."
"That would relieve us [of] the burden of discussing contentious issues because we have another group doing that while we explore ways and means on how to move our relations forward," he told reporters.
He did not say which "think-tanks" would be involved in these issues, apparently referring to the two countries' territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
Aside from "encouraging two-track exchange," the parties have explored in their discussion possible human and ecological security options and suggestions for the benefit of both Filipino and Chinese people. These are:
- Encouraging marine preservation
- Avoiding tensions and promoting fishing cooperation
- Anti-drug and anti-smuggling cooperation
- Anti-crime and anti-corruption cooperation
- Improving tourism opportunities
- Encouraging trade and investment facilitation
UN tribunal decision not mentioned
When asked if they discussed a UN-backed tribunal's ruling last month that Beijing's claims over most of the South China Sea were invalid, Ramos said "we never mentioned that."
The decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration was widely seen as a victory for the Philippines which has challenged China's claims to the vital waterway.
China refused to recognize the decision and had demanded that the Philippines disregard it in future talks. The Philippines rejected this.
Both Ramos and Alunan stressed that they were only informal envoys and that further formal talks would be handled by other parties.
Ramos said they also "talked about fishing," referring to China driving away Filipino fishermen from a shoal it occupied in 2012 after a stand-off with Philippine authorities.
The shoal is 230 kilometers (140 miles) off the main Philippine island of Luzon and 650 kilometers from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese landmass.
Ramos said he discussed restoring the previous situation where Chinese, Filipino and even Vietnamese fishermen freely plied their trade in the Scarborough Shoal.
"We talked about fishing, return of what is called fishing status quo ante before the conflict, to restore the fishing according to the rights accorded by tradition," the former president said.
Alunan, however, said that there was no further discussion regarding the 'fishing status quo' because "we were just there to break the ice. It was just initial, the official agreement, it would be on the bilateral talks."
Since there is no formal agreement yet, local fishermen could still not go to Scarborough Shoal, according to the former Interior chief.
Both Ramos and Alunan said the Chinese side made no commitments and merely noted their proposals.
"Their response was 'noted.' It's because, don't forget, we were not there to agree. We were just there to talk. Please make that distinction," Alunan said.
Ramos noted that they are yet to report to Duterte everything that was discussed during the exploratory talks in Hong Kong.
"We are here to report first to our appointing authority which is President Duterte but he is in Mindanao right now," he said.
Duterte is currently in Mindanao for a series of visits.
"We have done the official protocol reports but as soon as they are back in Manila we will report to the President personally, then he will tell us what is the next step," he added.
While the territorial dispute has strained ties, Duterte has previously said he would seek Chinese help for vital infrastructure projects. —John Ted Cordero with Agence France-Presse