WHEN it was formed five years ago, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum was an informal group of 12 nations with no clear agenda.
APEC, which now counts 18 countries as members, is still an informal grouping, but it indeed has an agenda: free trade.
On Nov. 15, these Asian-Pacific leaders, meeting in Bogor, Indonesia, struck a last-minute deal that sets a timetable for easing rules on foreign investment and eliminating tariffs in the region. The largest industrial countries in the group have until 2010 to end trade barriers; the rest are being given until 2020.
The declaration is nonbinding and fairly vague. The timetable is far enough away that it will have little immediate impact. But by approving the decree, this loose coalition of countries has taken a solid step toward increased economic growth in what could develop into the largest free-trade zone in the world.
Malaysia and China, which publicly opposed a timetable for free trade, were right to put their opposition aside and climb aboard. The 2010 and 2020 timetables carry weight that an open-ended agreement would not. And the group is to be commended for its flexibility in allowing for two timetables, thereby recognizing the different levels of development among APEC countries.
The group's philosophy is that freer trade will lead to more economic activity, and each of the participating countries believes APEC benefits it. President Clinton, for example, hopes to use the summit as a springboard to persuade Congress to ratify the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, due to go into effect Jan. 1. Part of the Bogor agreement calls for carrying out GATT ``fully and without delay.'' Developing countries, meanwhile, want to keep the US market open.
Despite its successes, the Indonesian meeting has not been problem-free. Mr. Clinton has had to spend much of his time trying to reassure leaders that American foreign policy won't be adversely affected now that Republicans will have a majority in Congress.
And though he has tried to keep the focus on economics, Clinton and the other leaders, particularly President Suharto of Indonesia, have had to confront, sometimes reluctantly, important issues of human rights.
Thorny bilateral trade issues remain to be resolved, particularly between the United States and China, and the US and Japan. If these are not resolved, the US has threatened sanctions against those two nations.
It is in everyone's best interest that the countries work out these specifics of trade as successfully as they have put forth their grander plans.