Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte waits for the Southeast Asian leaders to arrive during the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines April 29, 2017. Picture taken April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

From Japan’s Shinzo Abe to China’s Xi Jinping to India’s Narendra Modi, the region is abuzz with stern leaders exerting firm control over political systems and promising forceful economic reform regimes.  Strongmen are back in vogue in Asia.

Yet no one is tossing around more testosterone than Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

Since June 30, 2016, he’s made rape jokes, called former U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a whore,” boasted about dropping criminals from helicopters and, of course, deputized an army of gunmen to kill thousands of alleged drug dealers and users extrajudicially.

He earns his “Duterte Harry” nickname daily and gleefully.

He earns his “Duterte Harry” nickname daily and gleefully.

All this bloodshed is bad for business. When Benigno Aquino left office almost one year ago, he bequeathed Duterte an economy on the ascendancy -– from weak link to investment-grade growth star in just six years.

Duterte’s job was clear: build on and broaden Aquino’s success in repairing the national balance sheet, promoting good governance and attacking corruption.

Instead, Duterte thinks his mandate is creating a bull market in body bags and human-rights-group rebukes.

When Standard & Poor’s warned Duterte’s policy chaos could lead to a downgrade, he yelled “so what the hell?” and “leave us, then we will start on our own” rating system. Not reassuring as these things go.

Duterte’s appeal was his muscular tenure as mayor of Davao City, which was believed to enjoy less crime, inequality and inefficiency than most other Philippine metropolises.

It’s not unlike Indians electing Modi to take his “Gujarat model” national and drain the swamp in the capital.

To be fair, only time will tell if voters get their wish. So far, though, his administration has gotten far more attention for bloodshed than reform.

Question is, might Duterte be shooting the 100 million-person nation in the proverbial foot?

Question is, might Duterte be shooting the 100 million-person nation in the proverbial foot?

There’s still time to turn things around; he does have five more years in the presidential palace. But Duterte’s priorities so far aren’t encouraging.

He must act immediately to accelerate the infrastructure push that began in earnest during the Aquino years.

To reach its potential, Manila must improve its economic hardware. From mining to manufacturing to tourism, the nation has the natural resources to match Singapore’s wealth.

Harnessing them, though, requires vastly better infrastructure and governance. Bringing down the cost of electricity alone would help the Philippines woo giant auto and technology factories.

Investing more in education and training would raise the nation’s competitive game in the age of China.

Perhaps the biggest problem is distraction. One example is the success with which ISIS has gained a foothold in the Philippines over here when Duterte’s gunman waged a drug war over there.

This, of course, could get much worse as the death toll has reached more than 300 in the fight by the military to retake control of Marawi city from ISIS-linked rebels on Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.

Separately, a military outpost in North Cotabato, also on Mindanao, was attacked this week by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. It was beaten off, but raises concern the insurgency is spreading.

Here, Aquino deserves some blame, too. Yes, the Philippines grew faster than China for a few years there, but job growth underwhelmed.

Aquino should’ve paid more direct attention to tens of millions of people below the poverty line. It’s up to Duterte to fire up the employment engine, and now.

It’s up to Duterte to fire up the employment engine, and now.

The first step is forsaking the “Cult of GDP,” or the tendency of governments to think their job is done when gross domestic product averages 5% or more.

The Philippines has long needed to grow better, not faster. Rather than declaring martial law, Duterte must marshal deregulation through a change-averse political system to take on vested interests, particularly the power of dynastic land-owning families.

The key is highlighting where — and to whom — the lion’s share of economic benefits are going and to level the playing field.

Nothing would buttress Duterte’s reputation for omnipotence like an economic boom that captures the world’s imagination.

By making sure the Philippines remains more of a turnaround story than cautionary tale would make Dutertenomics the toast of the developing world. Talk about strength.

(William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist, former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Twitter: @williampesek)

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