MANILA, Philippines – Former president Fidel Ramos, President Rodrigo Duterte's envoy to Beijing, has been asked to avoid a "confrontation" with the Chinese government as he seeks bilateral talks on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said Ramos' mission to Beijing was among the topics discussed at the new administration's first National Security Council meeting held Wednesday, July 27.
Though specific instructions were not given, the guiding principles for the mission were taken up during the meeting, Abella said during a press briefing on Friday, July 29.
"They are not necessarily instructions but these are principles of wisdom about how to go about the conversation – that you can start with things they agree on and not necessarily begin from an adversarial or insistent position," said Abella.
Ramos' mission would not be to seek a confrontation with China. Asked if that means the historic Hague ruling nullifying China's claim on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) will not be discussed as a basis of the talks, Abella was not clear.
"If circumstances arrive, then if they can talk about that, they will talk about that," he said.
Inputs from former presidents
The 4 former Philippine presidents who are also NSC members – Benigno Aquino III, Pampanga 2nd District Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, and Fidel Ramos – all gave their inputs on possible next steps of the Duterte administration.
Addressing soldiers in Luceno, Quezon, on Thursday Duterte said during the meeting, Arroyo advised "caution" in the talks, while Estrada called for "restraint" – both consistent with Duterte's previous statements that he wants a "soft landing" when dealing with China in relation to the maritime dispute.
"This does not run counter to what the President said. Although we won the arbitration, we will not flaunt it. Our position basically is, we stand on the ruling, however, we proceed diplomatically," said Abella.
Abella said Aquino, whose administration secured the Hague ruling for the Philippines, also gave inputs but Abella did not elaborate. (READ: Duterte thanks Aquino for 'ace card' Hague ruling)
On Thursday night, Duterte said he wants to secure talks with China first before making demands.
"Let Ramos navigate and maybe, when the final talks are there and we are face-to-face with China, that will be the time to be frank with each other," he had said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Asked when Ramos would fly to Beijing to jumpstart the talks, Abella said there was no specific date discussed.
"They are taking the time to put together the package. In a sense, we are not really rushing into this," he said.
Former interior secretary Rafael Alunan III is still on standby as Ramos' substitute if the former president is unable to fulfill the task for whatever reason, said Abella.
Duterte has assured US Secretary of State John Kerry that any talks his administration will engage in will begin with the Hague ruling.
The US supports the planned bilateral talks between the Philippines and China as long as they are based on the ruling which the western power considers final and legally-binding.
China, however, rejects the ruling and declared it would not participate in talks premised on the ruling. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.