THE draconian tariffs imposed on China's exports to Mexico recently will be challenged behind the scenes at a meeting of politicians, trade representatives and businessmen that opens today in Seoul, South Korea. The Mexican moves will be part of the debate about the extent to which regional groupings represent a threat to global trade, an issue that will dominate the 26th international general meeting of the Pacific Basin Economic Council (PBEC). As a totally free trading economy, Hongkong is particularly concerned that the mushrooming of economic co-operation areas presents a back-door route to protectionism. The Mexican penalties on Chinese goods such as textiles and footwear, which followed allegations of dumping, have caused particular concern, as Mexico will form part of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), along with the United States and Canada, if the group's formation is ratified by the US Congress in the summer. Mexico dismayed Chinese manufacturers and Hongkong re-exporters with the force of its measures, which included a swingeing 1,100 per cent tariff on shoes. Mr Ian Christie, director of the Hongkong General Chamber of Commerce and a member of the 12-strong territory team attending the meeting, said the implications for Hongkong's through trade were worrying. The delegation is headed by Mr Helmut Sohmen, chairman of the PBEC Hongkong committee and World-Wide Shipping. Unlike the Asian Pacific Economic Council, which is dominated by politicians and officials, the PBEC is mainly a businessmen's forum, although this year's meeting will be addressed by leading politicians from the region. Speaking on the potential for open regional policies will be President Kim Young-sam, of South Korea; Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, of Malaysia; and Philippines President Fidel Ramos. There is also a strong contingent from former communist countries. Russia has 30 representatives in Seoul, and Vietnam has sent five delegates, led by Minister for Trade Le van Triet. A special session on Hongkong-Vietnam trade has been scheduled, with the territory the second highest investor in Vietnam behind Taiwan. The key theme of the extent to which regional blocs represent another form of isolationism will be addressed by Mr Arthur Dunkel, the director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). On Saturday, Mr Dunkel said in Tokyo that the Uruguay round of GATT negotiations would resume in July, following the Group of Seven meeting. This will be widely welcomed at the PBEC meeting, as a successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round is regarded as crucial to preventing regional trading blocs from developing into thinly disguised protectionist organisations. The fear of being locked out of potentially lucrative markets, such as NAFTA and the European Community, is threatening to trigger counter moves in the Asia-Pacific region. Proposals by Malaysia for the formation of the East Asia Economic Caucus have been criticised outside the region for their failure to include the US, Australia and Canada. The meeting will also address plans for the development of a free trade area within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. The ASEAN Free Trade Association may eventually be extended to include Vietnam and Laos as their economies develop. But Hongkong delegates at the PBEC are cautious about the territory becoming linked to any particular group. It has been suggested that the territory should eventually join the East Asian Caucus, along with Japan, Taiwan and China. However, joining any trading club would be contrary to the territory's traditional independence and belief in total free trade, say PBEC delegates. They will be pressing hard at the meeting for a successful conclusion to the GATT talks as the best hope of keeping world trade moving freely.