The UK’s export credit agency (ECA) has doubled its available support for UK exports to the Philippines, despite concerns over President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights records.

The Philippines will now have access to £4.5bn in export finance from UK Export Finance (UKEF), through which it can purchase UK goods and services to support its ambitious infrastructure programme.

British businesses in the construction, engineering, technology and project management industry are expected to benefit from the lending and guarantee programme, which was confirmed when the UK’s trade secretary Liam Fox visited the Philippines recently.

The chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Manila, Chris Nelson, tells GTR that the additional coverage will provide a boost to UK companies, as they try to compete with contractors from China and Japan – both of which will be able to count on government financial support.

He says: “There’s an opportunity. The finance is only one aspect. It’s also going to be down to expertise, the ability to present and demonstrate right. I can’t say it will directly negate what the Chinese can offer, but it is a consideration.

Nelson adds: “Selling to the Philippines has more challenges than selling to Europe, first of all based on proximity. But you’ve got 103 million, a 1.8% population growth rate, another 10 million that live abroad, a growth rate of 6%, which was second only to China, depending on if you believe the Chinese figures. I do think there’s a lot of opportunity, but it will require patience and skill.”

However, he says that of the 200 or so UK businesses the chamber has offered assistance to in coming to the Philippines, not a single one has mentioned the human rights issues prevalent in the country.

Since his election in 2016, Duterte has unleashed a massive crackdown on the Filipino drug industry, killing more than 7,000 people – even boasting about personally executing suspected criminals himself.

The US President Donald Trump has come under fire for inviting Duterte – who described Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” – to the White House. Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phelim Kane says that countries who have close ties with the Philippines “have an obligation to urge accountability for the victims of Duterte’s abusive drug war”.

A UKEF spokesperson tells GTR: “We do not shy away from confronting barriers to trade and investment – including issues of human rights and corruption. Greater knowledge and understanding of one another will increase our ability to address those issues that concern us.”

However, there was no comment about whether the issue of human rights abuses would be a deterrent to future bilateral trade. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be the case. The UK is desperately seeking to shore up peripheral trading relationships ahead of Brexit, with Fox and his team making 35 trade trips and clocking up 240,000 air miles since taking office last year.

UK companies are actively working to get a slice of Duterte’s infrastructure plans, which are set to cost US$160bn. Already UK companies such as Mott MacDonald, Arup and G4S are involved in the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. Atkins Acuity, in an interview with GTR late last year, confirmed that it was seeking further opportunities in the country.

Nelson says that in 2015, pre-Brexit, UK exports to the Philippines grew by 38% and with the country growing at 6% per year, there are ample opportunities for UK companies.

Duterte is set to expand the rail, road and urban transport networks and has already approached the Bank of China for potential loans of US$50bn for 19 projects. In December, he also tapped the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for more than US$1bn for urban bus and rail projects.

It is undoubtedly infrastructure that the Philippines requires, which the people crave and voted for, and which previous leaders failed to deliver.

And yet, the issue raises a quandary often faced by traders, contractors, governments and financiers: the UK is desperately attempting to court business outside of the EU, but in many places this involves dealing with leaders with questionable records on human rights.

In its former guise as ECGD, UKEF was criticised for lending US$35mn to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe to purchase British fighter jets and more than 1,000 police Land Rovers, which were used to suppress his own people.

How far does a leader have to go before the international financial system refuses to do business with him? In the case of Duterte, only one year into his term in office, the channels of trade are well and truly open.