Proponents and critics of President Rodrigo Duterte were driven into a frenzy last week when he challenged retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio to a debate on the previous and current administration’s role in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

The excitement rose a notch when Carpio announced that he was accepting the President’s challenge.

The Philippine Bar Association then offered to host the debate, which Carpio told Duterte could be held “at your convenience.”

Everyone was disappointed when Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said that Duterte was backing out of the debate on the advice of his Cabinet.

Over the weekend, however, Roque said the debate could still be held “perhaps come June 2022.”

Roque said the President really wanted to debate the retired SC justice, but his Cabinet talked him out of it.

Among those who opposed the debate were Senate President Vicente Sotto and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, according to Roque. Executive Sec. Salvador Medialdea also advised against it.

The reasons for dropping the debate were:

  • There would be no benefit for the Filipino people;
  • Duterte was a sitting president, while Carpio was an “ordinary lawyer, and;
  • Whatever the President said during the debate could be interpreted as affecting public policy

Roque added that due to his position, the President’s debating Carpio would not be fair.

Roque, however, avoided the issue that it was actually Duterte who made the challenge.

Addressing local media, Roque also said that Cabinet members were worried that the President might make policy declarations which would then be considered as irreversible.

Carpio agreed to debate Duterte purely on factual matters, as the President had incorrectly stated on several occasions that the now-retired SC justice was part of the previous Aquino administration, which “allowed” China to grab Philippine properties such as Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef.

As a sitting member of the high tribunal, Carpio had no say on the executive actions of the Aquino administration. Carpio, however, helped prepare the legal brief that was presented before the international court, which was awarded in the Philippines favor shortly after Duterte assumed the presidency.

According to Carpio, the President continues to claim falsely that China “is in possession of the West Philippine Sea.”

The President has claimed on numerous occasions that there was nothing he could do about China’s intrusions in contested waters, short of declaring war against the economic and military superpower.