President Barack Obama and his Malaysian host vowed Saturday to fight the “evil” and “hateful” ideology unleashed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, whose self-claimed attacks recently in France, Lebanon and Egypt have cast a grim shadow over an Asian summit.
“We will not allow these killers to have a safe haven,” Obama said at a business conference on the sidelines of a summit of Southeast Asian leaders that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak opened earlier. The two leaders will attend a larger summit of 18 Asia-Pacific countries on Sunday.
The summit is taking place against the backdrop of the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt, a suicide bombing in Beirut, a series of attacks in Paris and the slaying this week of a Malaysian hostage by militants in the southern Philippines. Najib said he was going to begin his speech by talking about the achievements of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which he is the current chairman.
“But the events of recent days and weeks have cast a shadow over us all,” he said. “Be assured that we stand with you against this new evil that blasphemes against the name of Islam.”
“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.
He also cautioned that a military solution alone will not be enough to defeat terrorism. “It is the ideology propagated by these extremists that is the cause of this sadistic violence ... we must not lose sight of the fact that the ideology itself must be exposed as the lie that it is - and vanquished. For it is not Islamic. It cannot be.”
In his speech, Obama referred to the attack on a luxury hotel in the capital of Mali on Friday, and said the world is determined “to push back on the hateful ideologies that fuel this terrorism.”
Besides Malaysia, the region also includes Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation that is no stranger to extremism. Some other nations in the region - Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar - have large minority Muslim populations. But by and large, Southeast Asia has not been inflicted by the kind of violence seen in the Middle East, where ISIS 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.
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.