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Ramos arrives in Hong Kong, talks China ties

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos holds up what he says are photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited the Philippines in his youth during a press briefing at the Philippines consular office in Hong Kong, China, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos flew to Hong Kong on Monday for talks aimed at rekindling ties with China that have been strained by long-seething disputes in the South China Sea. AP/Ng Han Guan

HONG KONG — Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos said Tuesday that he wants to focus on points of common interest with China such as tourism and commercial fishing as part of efforts to smooth relations with Beijing roiled by the South China Sea dispute.

Current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has asked the 88-year-old Ramos to act as his special envoy to pave the way for talks with Beijing after an international arbitration tribunal last month invalidated China's expansive territorial claims in a case put forward by the Philippines.

Ramos spoke with reporters Tuesday in Hong Kong, where he said he plans to meet old friends with links to officials in Beijing as a prelude to further contacts.

"That's why we're standing by, and if there's any development, the general consul will be the first one to know and she will inform us," Ramos said.

China has denied Philippine fishermen access to traditional grounds lying within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zone, an area Ramos implied the countries could share.

Discussing an agenda for talks, Ramos pointed to "some irritations that we would like to eliminate or at least remedy so that we can have common points of interest."

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"One of them is more tourism, more fishing in the common fishing ground, which is within the Philippine (exclusive economic zone), but where the Chinese fishermen have also identified as being part of their traditional fishing grounds," Ramos said.

China refused to participate in the arbitration case or recognize the ruling, and insists bilateral negotiations are the only appropriate forum to discuss such issues. The Philippines has complained it was forced to go to the body in the Hague, Netherlands, because bilateral talks had gone nowhere.

While the government has yet to formally comment on Ramos' mission, the official Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday said in an editorial that it "brings a whiff of hope that the two countries will return to bilateral negotiations over the issue."

"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," Xinhua said.

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