IF EVER there was a trade bloc that needed to pull a magic rabbit from its collective hat it has to be Afta, the free trade area of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Trade blocs are great for politicians. They provide a handy device behind which to protect domestic industries - offering a mechanism that excluded foreign competition while not appearing crudely protectionist. They present leaders with a world stage on which to strut and make mighty proclamations. They provide leverage; allowing small countries to band together to further their collective dreams and desires. But they have to work, and what is more they have to be seen to work, otherwise the petty nationalism of injured interests will find an easy foothold. During times of turmoil it is understandable why the countries of Southeast Asia might perceive a need to club together. Look around them, there they are alone in the world, China to the north, India to the west. Across the Pacific there is Nafta, the North American Free Trade Association, between Canada, the United States and Mexico, while in Europe they see the European Union, that most successful of trade blocs. With role models like that, it seems almost inevitable that the small countries of Southeast Asia should feel in clubby mood. And in that clubby mood, casting a glance at the chaos wrought to their economies by the Asian crisis, that clubbiness might turn to a feeling of quiet desperation. How to make the thing worthwhile? The leaders of Asean want to take 'bold measures' to bring the fruits of economic co-operation to bear. So bold, in fact, that the ministers responsible for economic affairs yesterday sent their underlings scurrying back to their bureaucratic drawing boards, complaining that the plans put forward fell far short of the required radicalism. Last night they were locked in earnest debate on ways to dramatically speed free trade efforts to help solve the economic crisis. The ministers are attempting to do a very bold thing: bring forward the Asean Free Trade Area and unify investment regulations faster than expected. Much of this faith in the power of the trade bloc may be misplaced. For a start, history remembers only those blocs that have been rip-snorting successes. There have been many more that have ended in tears, and more often than not a little bloodshed. Bear in mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda are members of the African Economic Community. Those that have proved particularly successful have come in different shapes and sizes, from a loose collection of preferential tar iffs (Mercosur in Latin America and Nafta in North America) to the integrationist types - like the European Union. In each of these cases, the benefits gained from closer economic integration have been wrung from an often painful and long process. Trade blocs can only be successful when the countries taking part have economic, social and political interests that are sufficiently aligned. Is this really the case with Asean?