Duterte to Carpio after debate withdrawal: I'm not afraid of you

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 10) – President Rodrigo Duterte claims he is not afraid of facing retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio regarding the West Philippine Sea issue, despite withdrawing from the debate he himself initiated.

"Hindi ako takot sa iyo. Ang problema, hindi ko naalala na hindi ikaw ang presidente," Duterte said during his national address on Monday.

[Translation: I'm not afraid of you. The problem is I forgot that you are not the president.]

Duterte added that if he went through with the debate against Carpio, his words might bind future government actions in resolving issues in the West Philippine Sea.

In his last national address on May 5, Duterte accused Carpio of having a role in the withdrawal of Philippine ships during a standoff with Chinese vessels in Scarborough Shoal, and dared Carpio to a debate on issues regarding the West Philippine Sea.

The challenge was "gladly accepted" by Carpio, with the Philippine Bar Association later offering to host the debate.

But on May 7, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque announced he was tapped to face Carpio instead since Duterte was advised by members of his Cabinet not to push through with the debate.

Over the past few weeks, Duterte repeatedly criticized Carpio and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario for their hard stance against China regarding the disputed waters.

"Sino ang nagbigay ng possession sa China sa West Philippine Sea? Sila, kung hindi sila umalis, wala sanang problema," the President said.

[Translation: Who gave away the possession to China in the West Philippine Sea? They did, because if they hadn’t left, there would have been no problems.]

Current Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., in a rare appearance at the President's national address, emphasized that Manila "lost possession" of Scarborough Shoal when its navy ships pulled out of the area.

"If your government at that time believes that that is yours, why will you withdraw?" said Locsin.

The Philippines, under the Benigno Aquino III administration, had a standoff with China in April 2012, after Chinese fishermen were spotted in the area. Philippine Navy vessels retreated from the shoal two months later in June because of Typhoon Butchoy and were not able to return.

Manila decided to file an arbitration case against Beijing, winning the landmark ruling in 2016 invalidating China's so-called "nine-dash" maritime claims which covered some parts of the West Philippine Sea and within the country's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

China has not recognized the ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Among the Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea are the building of man-made islands in some reefs and swarming of militia vessels to intimidate Filipino fishermen.

When he assumed presidency in June 2016, Duterte chose not to enforce the ruling and opting instead for a softer diplomatic approach in dealing with China and the West Philippine Sea issue.