ASIA-Pacific ministers smoothed over their differences with a large dose of flexibility yesterday, wrapping up a broad deal on free trade that lifted the gloom about US President Bill Clinton's decision to miss the meeting. After days of bickering about how quickly the world's fastest growing region should open its markets, ministers from the 18-member Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum announced they had agreed contentious issues. 'The text is settled, the major players are agreed. We are on our way to a very good settlement indeed,' said Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. 'We have really taken another giant step forward in APEC,' said US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen was equally upbeat. 'We're not divided any more on the Action Agenda, which is going to be adopted smoothly,' he said. The Action Agenda lays out a blueprint for opening markets in the 21st century in a region that accounts for half the world economy and nearly half its trade. At last year's summit in Bogor, Indonesia, APEC leaders pledged to completely open up their economies by the year 2010 for developed countries and by 2020 for developing ones. A key agreement was one allowing members to be flexible about how and when they will liberalise sensitive sectors like agriculture. Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, where rice farming has deep cultural significance, had wanted 'sensitive treatment' for farm trade. But big farm exporters like the United States and Australia strongly objected. The compromise let everybody claim victory. 'The key word is flexibility,' said South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister for policy planning, Ban Ki-moon. 'It allows members to voluntarily decide on the speed, extent, timing and method of implementing liberalisation.' A Japanese Government official provided a more tortured explanation: 'The interpretation of the language will be left to each member. 'There are opinions about flexibility within the deadline stipulated, but there are also opinions which say flexibility is admitted on modality.' Asked if that meant Japan would open its rice market by 2010, he said: 'Please be patient.' A US administration official insisted the language in the draft agreement was 'absolutely unequivocal'. Ministers also defused the other big issue - Washington's review of trade ties with China. The US must by law review China's Most Favoured Nation status (MFN) annually. China and other APEC nations see this as contrary to APEC's pledge on 'non-discriminatory' trade. The draft agreement said members will 'apply or endeavour to apply' non-discriminatory trade practices. That left China chagrined. 'Endeavour . . . means MFN is not resolved,' China's Long Yongtu said.