President Rodrigo Duterte backed down from his own challenge to debate retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio on the West Philippine Sea after the former magistrate called his bluff and said he was ready to face the Chief Executive anytime of the day.
The President’s spokesman, Harry Roque, offered to face Carpio instead, after Cabinet members, including Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, said it would not benefit the country for the President to participate in such a debate.
Carpio immediately rejected a debate with Roque, calling it “pointless.”
Roque said Duterte was ready to debate Carpio but decided to heed the advice of members of his Cabinet, who said it would be “unfair” to the President to debate Carpio, an “ordinary lawyer.”
Roque said some members of the Cabinet also raised the concern that Duterte might inadvertently reveal some classified information during such a debate.
Both the Cabinet and some members of the Senate, including Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, said nothing good would result from a debate between the President and the former Supreme Court associate justice.
On Thursday, the Philippine Bar Association offered to host a debate between Duterte and Carpio.
Carpio on Friday turned down a debate with Roque, saying it was pointless to debate on issues that are not being disputed. Earlier, Roque has proposed a number of topics focusing on which administration lost Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef to China.
“I accepted the President’s challenge without any conditions. Now the President has backed out of his personal challenge to me without giving a definite reason. Instead, he has designated his spokesperson Harry Roque to debate with me on the issue of what administration lost Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef to China,” Carpio said.
The President has been on the attack against Carpio, a staunch critic of his policy of appeasement with China.
On Wednesday, he falsely accused Carpio of having a hand in the withdrawal of the Philippine Navy from Scarborough Shoal, allowing China to seize control of it, even though Carpio was still in the Supreme Court at that time.
Carpio said he had accepted Duterte's challenge on the premise of his arguments, such as his claim that China has full possession of the West Philippine Sea.
“There is no factual dispute that China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines during the Aquino administration. There is also no factual dispute that China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines during the Ramos administration. Further, there is no factual or legal dispute that China seized Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef in violation of international law,” he said.
“Hence, it is pointless to debate about Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef. I will not engage in a useless exercise that will only detract the public’s interest on the vital outstanding issues on the West Philippines Sea, like the President’s continuing false claim that ‘China is in possession of the West Philippine Sea,'” Carpio added.
In making this claim, Carpio said, the President went even further than the Chinese, who never claimed to be in full possession of the West Philippine Sea.
A president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Domingo Egon Cayosam said a dialogue away from the cameras would be more helpful than a debate at this time.
He told ABS-CBN Teleradyo that China would be thrilled if the country’s leaders and various sectors were fighting because they were not united.
“The winner here is China because our leaders and various sectors are fighting while China is unified in their intention to grab what is legally ours,” he said in Filipino.
Senator Panfilo Lacson questioned the benefits to the public if Duterte debated Carpio.
“What do we gain from the debate assuming that it pushes through? One other dire outcome is further divisiveness that only China will benefit from," Lacson said.
Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros said the Philippine Coast Guard should ward off Chinese fishermen who may continue to illegally harvest giant clams, locally known as taklobo, in the West Philippine Sea, amid reports that Chinese militia vessels are still loitering in Philippine waters.
“China’s crimes are piling up. The PCG recently spotted Chinese poachers around Pag-asa Islands stealing our taklobo" Hontiveros said.
These giant clams, she said, should be protected, as clearly stipulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which China is a party.
The senator said the Philippines had previously lodged diplomatic protests over China’s giant clam harvesting in the WPS. In 2015, the protest was filed based on a report by the PCG that two dozen Chinese utility boats were seen collecting taklobo around Scarborough Shoal.
Another protest was filed in 2019, she said.
“The PCG should also employ the help of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea in looking out for these illegal activities," she added.