KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's leader on Saturday denounced the Islamic State as an "evil" terrorist group, saying his Muslim-majority country is ready to join others to defeat it while cautioning that a military solution alone was not enough.
What needs to be "vanquished" is the ideology of the Islamic State, said Prime Minister Najib Razak in a speech to open two days of summits that will also include President Barack Obama.
Najib said the world is in dire need of moderation. "This is how Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King won the hearts and minds of their enemies. They won by transforming their foes into friends," he said.
The summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, followed by a series of nine other summits involving Asia-Pacific countries, is taking place in the Malaysian capital in the backdrop of several extremist attacks around the globe, some of which were claimed by the Islamic State group.
The attacks included the bombings and assaults in Paris and Beirut, the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt, and the hostage taking in Bamako, Mali, on Friday. Closer to home, a Malaysian hostage was killed by an Islamic militant group in the southern Philippines.
"The perpetrators ... do not represent any race, religion or creed. They are terrorists and should be confronted as such, with the full force of the law," Najib said in a stirring speech that repeatedly emphasized the tolerance of Islam.
"Malaysia stands ready to provide any help and support that we can, and be assured that we stand with you against this new evil that blasphemes against the name of Islam," he said.
Besides Malaysia, the region also includes Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation that is no stranger to extremism. But by and large, Southeast Asia has not been inflicted by the kind of violence seen in the Middle East, where the Islamic State is most potent.
Najib suggested that economic growth has been the bedrock of the region's relative peace and progress. The combined GDP of the 10 nations — a motley conglomeration of 630 million people following Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Confucianism and Taoism — was $2.6 trillion in 2014, an 80 percent increase in seven years.
The region is aiming for greater economic, political and cultural integration. On Sunday, ASEAN — as the grouping is known — will formally establish the ASEAN Community to create a unified economic entity.
Envisaged in 2002, work on the community began in 2007, and it's already delivering benefits to the region. Najib listed them in his speech:
— Tariffs on trade in the region have been reduced to zero, or near zero, helping bring down prices of goods;
— Unemployment is down to 3.3 percent;
— Citizens enjoy visa-free travel through nine out of 10 countries;
— Citizens are allowed to work in other countries in the region in eight major sectors, including tourism.
Despite the good news that Najib delivered, the community falls short in more politically sensitive areas such as opening up agriculture, steel, auto production and other protected sectors. Intra-regional trade has remained at around 24 percent of ASEAN's total global trade for the last decade, far lower than 60 percent in the European Union.
There are also other hurdles, such as corruption, uneven infrastructure and unequal costs of transportation and shipping. A wide economic gulf divides Southeast Asia's rich and middle income economies — Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines — and its four less developed members, Communist Vietnam and Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Tan See Seng, a professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said it is true that there are no tariffs at the borders. "But once you enter ... you may have to grease the palms of some people in certain ASEAN countries to proceed. These 'behind the border' barriers ... are a key impediment slowing down the process of integration," he said.
Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamad agreed that non-tariff barriers remain. "There is a need for courage and political will. Sometimes we chickened out for whatever reason. It's important for us to push forward, to run faster," Mustapa told a regional business conference on Friday.
The AEC was envisaged to face competition from China and India for market share and investments. While China's economic growth is expected to slow to an average of 6 percent annually over the next five years, India's expansion is likely to pick up to 7.3 percent in the same period, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
ASEAN's relationship with China is highly complex and ambivalent. Despite being a competitor, China has also played the role of a principal financier in helping ASEAN reach its goals to temper its image as an economic threat.
At the same time, it has not hesitated to bully ASEAN countries in staking its claim to most of the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei have competing claims. Diplomatic squabbles have frequently erupted over oil and gas exploration and fishing rights in the area. China has also irked ASEAN countries by creating artificial islands from reefs to bolster its claim.
A declaration that China signed with ASEAN in 2002 to resolve the disputes peacefully has become essentially worthless, prompting ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh to tell The Associated Press, "That's why we need a new agreement which would be legally binding."
Associated Press writer Annabelle Liang in Singapore contributed to this report.