The Community declaration was signed by leaders of the 10- member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Kuala Lumpur, this year's host of the group's annual summit. The ASEAN Community includes a political, security and socio-cultural dimension in a region with governments ranging from communist in Vietnam and quasi-military in Myanmar to the kingdom of Brunei and the boisterous democracy of the Philippines.

But it is the economic community that offers the most concrete opportunities for integration in a region whose combined gross domestic product (GDP) would make it the world's seventh-largest economy. "In practice, we have virtually eliminated tariff barriers between us," said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the summit host. "Now we have to assure freer movements and removal of barriers that hinder growth and investment."

The countries aim to harmonise economic strategies, recognise each other's professional qualifications, and consult more closely on macroeconomic and financial policies. They have also agreed to enhance the connectivity of their transportation infrastructure and communications, better facilitate electronic transactions, integrate industries to promote regional sourcing, and enhance private-sector involvement in the economy.

Eight groups of professionals will be able to work more easily throughout the region: engineers, architects, nurses, doctors, dentists, accountants, surveyors and tourism professionals.

Following the signing ceremony, ASEAN leaders met with eight others from Asia and the Pacific for the annual East Asia summit: the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.

U.S. President Barack Obama was set to raise concerns at the summit about China's more assertive posture in the South China Sea. On Saturday, at a bilateral meeting with ASEAN leaders, Obama said countries should stop building artificial islands and militarising their claims in the disputed South China Sea.

China has been transforming reefs in the Spratly archipelago into artificial islands and has built airfields and other facilities on them. This has caused ripples of alarm in much of East Asia about China's intentions and freedom of navigation in a waterway through which USD 5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually.

China insists it has undisputed sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, a claim that overlaps with four ASEAN countries. The United States has sent military ships and war planes by China's artificial islands in recent weeks to assert its "freedom of navigation" in the sea.

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