MANILA, Philippines (Updated 3:44 p.m.) — Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said he will take President Rodrigo Duterte's place in a debate with former Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea because it would be unseemly for the president to stoop down to Carpio's level.
The debate had been the president's idea and the challenge was issued after a series of insults at the former Supreme Court justice. Carpio has been criticizing the government for playing down a 2016 arbitral ruling saying China's nine-dash line claim over a large part of the South China Sea has no basis in international law.
Roque said Cabinet members and senators advised the president against pushing through with the debate since Carpio is now just "a regular lawyer."
Carpio readily accepted the president's challenge to a debate, which the Philippine Bar Association has offered to host.
Duterte has, in recent taped portions of his meetings with officials, launched tirades against Carpio and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.
He has stressed that China was already in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal when he became president and that the Aquino administration, where del Rosario served as foreign affairs secretary, are to blame for Chinese presence in the West Philippine Sea.
Carpio rejects Roque's proposed topics
In a statement on Friday afternoon, Carpio pointed out that the president had "personally and publicly challenged me to a debate on the West Philippine Sea issue" and that he had accepted without conditions.
Referring to the issues that Roque said he wanted to debate, Carpio said:
"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."
He said there is "no factual or legal dispute that China seized Scarborough Shoal or Mischief Reef in violaton of international law."
He said there would be no point in debating those facts.
What he wants to debate, he said, is the president's claim that China "is in possession of the West Philippine Sea", a claim that he said not even China has made.
He said he is willing to debate with Duterte or his designated representative "on the factual accuracy and adverse legal implications" of the Philippine president making that statement. — Jonathan de Santos