The Taft Commission, appointed in 1900, viewed economic development, along with education and the establishment of representative institutions, as one of the three pillars of the United States program of tutelage. Its members had ambitious plans to build railroads and highways, improve harbor facilities, open greater markets for Philippine goods through the lowering or elimination of tariffs, and stimulate foreign investment in mining, forestry, and cash-crop cultivation. In 1901 some 93 percent of the islands' total land area was public land, and it was hoped that a portion of this area could be sold to American investors. Those plans were frustrated, however, by powerful agricultural interests in the United States Congress who feared competition from Philippine sugar, coconut oil, tobacco, and other exports. Although Taft argued for more liberal terms, the United States Congress, in the 1902 Land Act, set a limit of 16 hectares of Philippine public land to be sold or leased to American individuals and 1,024 hectares to American corporations. This act and tight financial markets in the United States discouraged the development of large-scale, foreign-owned plantations such as were being established in British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indochina.
The Taft Commission argued that tariff relief was essential if the islands were to be developed. In August 1909, Congress passed the Payne Aldrich Tariff Act, which provided for free entry to the United States of all Philippine products except rice, sugar, and tobacco. Rice imports were subjected to regular tariffs, and quotas were established for sugar and tobacco. In 1913 the Underwood Tariff Act removed all restrictions. The principal result of these acts was to make the islands increasingly dependent on American markets; between 1914 and 1920, the portion of Philippine exports going to the United States rose from 50 to 70 percent. By 1939 it had reached 85 percent, and 65 percent of imports came from the United States.
In 1931 there were between 80,000 and 100,000 Chinese in the islands active in the local economy; many of them had arrived after United States rule had been established. Some 16,000 Japanese were concentrated largely in the Mindanao province of Davao (the incorporated city of Davao was labeled by local boosters the "Little Tokyo of the South") and were predominant in the abaca industry. Yet the immigration of foreign laborers never reached a volume sufficient to threaten indigenous control of the economy or the traditional social structure as it did in British Malaya and Burma.