Editor's Pick FACT CHECK South China Sea: Waters of Contention

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte dares Carpio to debate on WPS dispute, then backs out; Palace calls it a ‘demotion’

Shifting gears in just two days, President Rodrigo Duterte backed out from his challenge to debate with retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio about the withdrawal of Philippine Navy ships during the 2012 maritime standoff at Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines, as well as the latter’s 2016 win at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

In a press briefing on May 7, Palace Spokesperson Harry Roque said that while Duterte was “very much ready” for the debate, Duterte decided to “heed the advice of some Cabinet members” that “nothing good” would come out of it and that the president and Carpio would be a mismatch.

During a televised address on May 5, Duterte launched tirades against Carpio and former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario, both vocal critics of the former’s handling of the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte claims he ‘never mentioned’ PH-China maritime row in 2016 campaign. He did.)

This, as tensions in the region rose with the reported “illegal” presence of Chinese fishing and militia vessels in Philippine-claimed waters beginning early March. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Chinese Embassy maintains FALSE claim that Julian Felipe Reef is China territory)

See how the president walked back on his own dare, and how the former justice responded:

In July 2016, the PCA declared that Mischief Reef, also known as Panganiban Reef, is “submerged at high tide” and is “not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.” Thus, it ruled that it forms “part of the exclusive economic zone [(EEZ)] and continental shelf of the Philippines.”

The tribunal found, among others, that China had “protected and failed to prevent” Chinese fisherfolk from operating within the Philippines’ EEZ at Mischief Reef, and also “constructed installations and artificial islands” at the maritime feature “without the authorization of the Philippines.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Apology from Chinese association falsely claims Recto Bank is China territory)

While the PCA did not decide on which state has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, a “rock” as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it ruled that China “had violated its duty to respect” the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fisherfolk “by halting access to the Shoal after May 2012.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Pro-Duterte blogger makes multiple inaccurate claims on West Philippine Sea, arbitral ruling)



PTV Official Youtube Channel, WATCH: President Rodrigo #Duterte’s Talk to the Nation, May 5, 2021, watch from 13:06 to 13:35, Scarborough shoal standoff: A timeline, May 9, 2012

VERA Files via ABS-CBN News Online, Ex-rebel soldier leads voyage to Scarborough Shoal, May 17, 2012

BBC News, Protest in Philippines over South China Sea stand-off, May 11, 2012

ABS-CBN Justice beat reporter Mike Navallo Official Twitter Account, READ: Carpio’s full statement, May 6, 2021

GMA News Online, Carpio accepts Duterte debate challenge, dares him to resign, May 6, 2021, Carpio accepts Duterte’s West PH Sea debate challenge, May 6, 2021

Philippine Bar Association, “Now that the president’s earlier challenge to debate on the West Philippine Sea by former Senior Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio…,” May 6, 2021

PTV Philippines Official Youtube Channel, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, inilatag ang bagong IATF Resolution, May 7, 2021, watch from 7:29 to 8:27

Presidential Communications Operations Office, On the West Philippine Sea debate, May 7, 2021

ABS-CBN Justice beat reporter Mike Navallo Official Twitter Account, After Pres Duterte backed out…, May 7, 2021, Carpio rejects debate with Roque on ‘pointless’ issues, May 7, 2021, Roque is substitute in supposed Duterte debate with Carpio on West Philippine Sea, May 7, 2021

Permanent Court of Arbitration, PRESS RELEASE: South China Sea Arbitration Award, July 12, 2016

United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)