Manila — The Philippines faces an unprecedented uneasiness over its high foreign debt following the assassination of chief opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. Prospects of rescheduling the country's foreign debt - now totalling more than $18 billion - have been raised by bankers and businessmen in Manila.
An American banker said that if some banks go so far as to freeze new loans in the next several months, the country might be forced to reschedule maturing loans. This could throw the economy in chaos. ''Economic turmoil, in turn, could be politically explosive,'' he said.
''Instead of helping alleviate the situation in the Philippines, the banks could make it worse,'' he added.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding the brutal slaying have heightened the political uncertainty in the country and fueled rumors about President Ferdinand Marcos' health.
Aquino's death could not have come at a worse time. Months before the killing of the charismatic opposition leader, many foreign banks, particularly the Japanese, expressed doubts over the wisdom of lending fresh funds to the Philippines to help the government bridge maturing short-term debts. They have seen how financial officials have been having extreme difficulty grappling with the chronic balance-of-payments deficit, which they hoped to reduce to $600 million this year from last year's record shortfall of $1.1 billion. Prices for Philippine commodity exports, such as coconut, were severely lower during the world recession, causing widespread unemployment and strains on government spending programs.
Although the Philippines obtained a $550 million loan from the International Monetary Fund this year, doubts remain whether Marcos will be able to sufficiently cut government budgets and remove protective barriers, especially with an election promised in 1984.
The current tension in the country's political arena has exacerbated the fears of bankers. They seem to have gotten cold feet, taking a hard look at their lending activities in the Philippines. Many banks' country managers have advised their head offices to put the Philippines in a higher risk category. Some have even recommended a freeze on new lending to the Philippines.
Bankers interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor point to two sources of anxiety.
* The major one is the question on how firmly is President Marcos in control of current political events. This fear is based on Marcos's health, which has been the center of speculations in Manila and which reached outrageous heights after the assassination of his political archrival, Benigno Aquino. Marcos's official statement on the slaying was not broadcast until almost seven hours after the crime was committed. Neither did he deliver the statement personally. It was read for him by newsreaders of the local television networks.
In order to dismiss speculations that he was ill, Marcos, with his wife and the whole Cabinet at his side, went on television Monday night a week ago. However, both local and foreign viewers were stunned by his weak physical appearance.
* Another source of anxiety is the mysterious circumstances of the political murder, which has caused serious embarrassment to Marcos. Days before Aquino's return, the government vowed to do everything to prevent Aquino's return because of alleged reports of an assassination plot. The vow has now made Marcos, his colleagues, and the military targets of accusations as culprits.
There are, however, a few banks that are appealing to the more nervous banks for calm and sobriety. An American banker, although uneasy himself, said that it might be more unwise for banks to stop lending to the Philippines precisely at this time.
''The political situation may settle down in two or three weeks,'' he said.
The general view - and hope - among bankers calling for calm is that in the event of a change of hands at the political helm, the economic and debt management would remain in the hands of present ''technocrats.''
These technocrats, led by Prime Minister Cesar Virata, seem to be adequately independent of politics, and have been able to provide some stable management to the country's finances, investment, and trade.
The various political factions jockeying for power under Marcos seem to recognize that these economic and debt managers command the confidence of foreign financial institutions.
''The least that could be done by any new political power is to maintain the services of the current crop of technocrats in order to put the banks at ease - at least in the short-to medium-term,'' another American banker says.
The Philippines, with foreign debts running to $18 billion short and long-term loans, is the third largest Asian borrower after South Korea and Indonesia. Annual interest and amortization payments have been rising, reaching figure has reached a record level, this has been prudently managed and the country has not defaulted on any of its loans.