“I am not afraid of you…I just forgot that I am the President, and you are not.”
This was how President Rodrigo Duterte defended his decision to back out from his own challenge to engage in a debate with retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio over the West Philippine Sea issue.
Duterte said whatever he says during the debate will be construed as state policy, that is why he chose the safer option of backing out from his dare.
“I might bind future actions of the government when it comes to the West Philippine Sea. Du’n ako sa kahon [I will not take that risk.] It’s not because I’m afraid of debates,” he said.
“I am not afraid of you. The problem is I really forgot you are not a President,” the commander-in-chief added.
Last week, Duterte challenged Carpio to a debate on the decision of the previous administration to withdraw the country’s Navy ships from Scarborough Shoal during a 2012 standoff with China.
Duterte accused then Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario of giving the order to withdraw without clearing the directive from then President Benigno Aquino III.
The President offered to resign if his claim is proven false.
Carpio, who was part of the legal team that secured the 2016 arbitral ruling from the United Nations that invalidated China’s massive claims over the South China Sea, accepted the challenge.
Duterte, however, was advised by his Cabinet not to push through with the debate, and presidential spokesman Harry Roque was designated as proxy instead.
On Monday evening, days after calling the arbitral ruling a mere scrap of paper that he would throw in a wastebasket, the President said he was only joking when he made his campaign promise to ride a jetski to the West Philippine Sea and tell Beijing that it belonged to Manila.
“That was during the campaign period. It was a joke. We call it bravado. My bravado was a pure campaign joke, and if you believed it, I would say that you are really stupid,” he said.
The President also asked Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to shed light on the issue.
“The question really is who lost possession of that reef? I have been very hard on the Americans, blaming them. Because when there was a confrontation between a Philippine ship and a Chinese ship, the interference, the participation of the US was to try to stop people from attacking each other so they said stand down and so they both stood down,” Locsin said.
“If you believe that it is yours, why will you withdraw? If I have UNCLOS on my side, saying that I am within my exclusive economic zone, then I will go look at the other side and say if you go, I will go. But you go first.”
“I think before you start any debate about the merits or the obligations generated by the arbitral award, you must first settle the issue -- who in the game of chicken stopped this car on the edge of the abyss first?” Locsin added.
Earlier in the day, the Palace dared critics to file an impeachment complaint against Duterte over the WPS issue, saying the President did not give up any single territory of the Philippines to China.
Roque made the challenge after Carpio accused the President of betraying the public trust and the national interest over his stance on the maritime conflict.
The retired SC justice claimed that Duterte’s actions or inaction on the West Philippine Sea could be considered an impeachable offense.
“Why betrayal of public trust? Was there a territory lost under the administration of President Duterte? None. Did he give territory to China? None,” Roque said.
“You know a political newbie will say everything to get attention and this is yet another instance of Justice Carpio saying things just for the attention,” the Palace official added.
Roque said if critics think the President violated any law with regards to the WPS issue, they can bring the matter to the Supreme Court.
He said since Carpio is now an ordinary citizen, he can file a complaint before the Supreme Court.
“The truth is it is not just because it is a numbers game. It is because it is utterly bereft of merit because the President is the sole architect, primary architect of foreign policy,” he added.
Duterte faced an impeachment complaint in 2017 over drug war killings, alleged corruption, and supposed failure to defend the country’s sovereign rights and territorial sea claims but the case did not prosper.
Meanwhile, Roque challenged Vice President Leni Robredo to a debate on whether or not Duterte had given away any Philippine territory to China under his administration.
Like Carpio, Roque said Robredo was among those who claimed that the Philippines lost territories under the Duterte administration.
Roque also said the President had nothing to prove after the hashtag #DuterteDuwag (Duterte coward) spread rapidly on social media following the announcement that Duterte would not debate Carpio.
Carpio, who has been advocating for the government to strongly assert its maritime territory in the West Philippine Sea as upheld by the arbitral ruling, said
Duterte’s “scrap of paper” remark was prejudicial to the country’s interests.
“The head of state, the President, or even the foreign minister can bind the country with his pronouncements and if these pronouncements are adverse, admissions against interest, this will bind the country if accepted by the other party. And that’s why it’s very dangerous,” Carpio said, in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel.
Carpio also debunked Duterte’s repeated statement that China is in possession of the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the disputed waterways in the South China Sea. China has insisted claims in almost the entire South China Sea through its so-called “nine-dash line.”
“Legally China is not in possession. And if he says that, what happens to our fishermen, what happens to the service contractors? They will not get the gas,” the former magistrate said.