LET'S have our weekend fix of "presidentiables." Cocaine, too, since President Rodrigo Duterte made the narcotic an election issue. He warned the nation that a popular candidate for president was a cocaine user; not to mention a "very weak leader [of the same] character," who did little for the country yet was adored and influential, coming from a well-known wealthy family.

A day later, the Chief Executive said survey-leading aspirant Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., running mate of first daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, was "very weak" and "spoiled." Rival contenders Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso and Senators Panfilo "Ping" Lacson and Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquiao said they were not the drug user referred to.

Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo and leftist Leodigario "Leody" de Guzman called on Duterte to investigate and charge the cocaine supplier. As of yesterday morning, Marcos had made no comment while Sen. Christopher Lawrence "Bong" Go, whom the President endorsed in the same speech accusing the unnamed cocaine sniffer, did not follow up the accusation.

A new poll by the Publicus Asia firm of former Moreno backer Malou Tiquia had Marcos still dominant, chosen by 56.7 percent of the 1,500 respondents, with his closest rival Robredo at 15.4 percent. His tandem mate Mayor Sara got 54.4 percent, overtaking erstwhile VP poll leader Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto 3rd, who got only 11.1 percent.

Tiquia, however, said President Duterte's tirades against the unnamed cocaine-using candidate, followed by his criticism of Marcos, could affect coming voter surveys. Marcos could lose many pro-Duterte voters, who may swing to the President's favored aspirant, Sen. Go, or the leading second-choice candidate in one survey, Isko Moreno.

Let's see who will have a Merry Christmas in the next polls.

Meanwhile, out at sea ...

If the Duterte diatribe raised eyebrows, so might the Chinese Coast Guard blocking and spraying with water cannon two Philippine ships resupplying a Marine detachment occupying a derelict ship stuck at Ayungin Shoal.

Since the March flare-up over about 200 Chinese vessels anchored near Julian Felipe Reef subsided in April, Beijing has sought to avoid confrontation with the Philippines ahead of the elections, so as not to make the China policy a major voter issue pressuring the President and undercutting his camp's candidates.

In recent months, China had even more reason to keep South China Sea (SCS) tensions down: the intensifying rivalry with the United States and its Western allies over Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, with calls in those nations for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Last week, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, China even indicated that it might finally conclude the years-overdue Code of Conduct in dispute areas of the SCS.

So, why would its Coast Guard ships suddenly harass Philippine resupply boats that had been operating undisturbed for years? The last incident happened around the time then US President Barack Obama visited Manila to witness the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to allow much larger rotations of American forces in the archipelago with access to several Philippine bases. China's Foreign Ministry claimed that the boats "trespassed" into Chinese waters.

But that had always been Beijing's position regarding foreign vessels in much of the South China Sea, given its "nine-dash line" claim over most of it. Why enforce the Chinese position now when tensions should be minimized for geopolitical and electoral considerations?

A progression of diplomatic events may deserve consideration.

First, a flurry of diplomatic protests by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) over the Chinese hailing by radio Philippine Air Force planes on maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as we call the waters covered by the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Unclos.

There were also the recent meetings in Washington between American and Philippine officials, including DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, that issued the "Joint Vision for a 21st Century United States-Philippines Partnership." The document declared: "We share the view that the People's Republic of China's (PRC) expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea are inconsistent with the international law of the sea as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and with the unanimous July 12, 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration ... legally binding on the Philippines and the PRC."

Beijing has consistently dismissed the July 2016 ruling, and the March incident involving 200 ships near Julian Felipe Reef may be in reaction to President Duterte raising the arbitral decision in the UN General Assembly in September 2019.

Lastly, Beijing could be warning against allowing US military deployment in the Philippines in the event of confrontation or conflict over Taiwan in the coming years, as some analysts fear.

On November 7, this column cautioned regarding "The very real threat of conflict over Taiwan" (https://www.manilatimes.net/2021/11/07/opinion/columns/the-very-real-threat-of-conflict-over-taiwan/1821227), possibly triggered by the US inviting and hosting top Taiwan officials at the Summit for Democracy to be hosted by the White House on December 9 and 10.

The DFA has rightly protested the water cannon and blocking by the Chinese Coast Guard. National Security Adviser Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr. declared that resupply sailings would continue, while the Philippine Coast Guard, under the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources would deploy vessels to Ayungin.

Washington has stated that any attack on Philippine public vessels would trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty provisions, which consider any attack on one of the signatories as threatening the security of the other and requiring action "in accordance with constitutional processes."

Opposition leaders also called for a strong response. Robredo protested the Chinese Coast Guard actions, and her running mate, Sen. Francisco Pangilinan urged a strongly worded protest. Another presidentiable, Senator Lacson, wanted to mobilize foreign allies against Chinese intrusions.

There may well be more incidents as election fever intensifies.