After backdoor talks, Mon Tulfo says China to withdraw ships near Pag-asa Island

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 3) — China has committed to remove its fleet of military ships and fishing boats around Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island following backdoor talks, Ramon Tulfo, a broadcaster turned special envoy of President Rodrigo Duterte, said Monday.

"I held several backdoor talks with them and they said they will have those ships disappear and withdrawn in no time," Tulfo told CNN Philippines' The Source.

In April, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest against China after hundreds of vessels swarmed Pag-asa Island.

Pressed further, Tulfo said he started the backdoor talks with ranking Chinese and military officials shortly after he was named as Special Envoy for Public Diplomacy to China in November last year. Discussions were held in Hong Kong and in the Mainland, with the most recent meeting staged in Beijing when Duterte went for a four-day visit in April.

Tulfo said that while the Chinese are insisting that "they have the right to occupy the territory," they are unlikely to grow more aggressive anytime soon because they have grown so fond of the Philippine president.

"We love him (Duterte) so much that we cannot afford to hurt him and we want you to be our friends. We need you as much as you need us, sabi nila (they said)," Tulfo added. "We need your food because we need to feed our multitude. We need your fish, your aquatic resources, we need your fruits — mango, durian, bananas."

READ: Duterte on China: Is it right to claim entire South China Sea?

Months after assuming office in 2016, Duterte visited Beijing and announced that the Philippines will "pivot" to China to revive and deepen economic ties, effectively reversing the hardline stance taken by former Pres. Benigno Aquino III in the context of the territorial row.

The last known backdoor negotiator for the Philippines with China was Senator Antonio Trillanes IV during Aquino's term. The informal talks back then were aimed at diffusing tension over Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines lost control of Scarborough after a 2012 standoff with China, prompting Manila to file a case for international arbitration. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Abritration in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims to the South China Sea.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Vietnman, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea.

Tulfo said the Chinese have been "very polite" during their informal discussions, and that they have committed to pulling out their ships from the disputed island.

"No, no, they don't want to be enemies with us," Tulfo said.

"Ang sabi nila, we'll make the ships disappear in no time. Sabi ko, please, our troops there feel very uncomfortable. But they said they should not feel uncomfortable because we're not going to harm them. We just want to make our presence felt," he added.

However, Tulfo said that he will organize further informal meetings with the Chinese authorities to see if they follow through.

The Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has reported that China's "most destructive" vessels have returned to sail near the Scarborough Shoal, Paracel Islands, and Bombay Reef to harvest endangered giant clams called taklobo which they sell for thousands of dollars apiece.

Tulfo said that the clam harvesting has not been taken up during the backdoor talks so far.

Tulfo also dissuaded fears about a possible Chinese invasion: "China has never had any history of invading another country, right? They said they were invaded by other countries, that's why they had to set up the Great Wall of China."

For now, Tulfo said that they are "cashing in" on the escalating trade tensions between the United States and China, with 100 companies and factories looking to transfer their operations to the Philippines. Those firms will be hiring Filipino laborers if they push through with the move, he said.

Chinese tourism agencies are also working to bring a million big-spending visitors to the Philippines annually, Tulfo added.

Meanwhile, the envoy said he is not taking back his previous remark that Filipino construction workers are "tamad" (lazy), insisting that Chinese workers are far more productive compared to them.

"I am not taking back anything, I’m saying truth hurts," Tulfo said.

Tulfo's term as special envoy to China was renewed in May for another six months.