INDONESIA this week spoke out in favour of a stronger and more wide-ranging role for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum. But other Asian nations, including Hong Kong, have been markedly more cautious. They are right to be wary. APEC must be a regional counterpart to the industrialised nations' Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), providing an institutional base for studying economic trends, measuring growth, recommending economic development strategies and setting standards. It should not, as the proposed new title Asia Pacific Economic Community suggests it will, turn itself into a political body with long-term ambitions to supplant the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It should not compete as a trading bloc with the European Community or, most dangerous of all, serve as a tool for a US campaign to turn the entire Pacific Basin into another of America's backyards. Yet that is where both the American and Australian proposals for an APEC summit in Seattle in November and their attempts to bring in Argentina and Chile into the forum appear to be leading. These Latin American nations have little in common with Asia and none of the traditional links with the region of America, Australia or even Canada. Such proposals undermine the organisation's specifically regional role. Hong Kong and Taiwan are political minnows, but economic giants. If President Bill Clinton or Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating really valued APEC exclusively as an economic forum, China's refusal to attend the summit, unless Hong Kong and Taiwan are excluded, would be enough to scuttle the meeting. At the same time Malaysia's and Thailand's reluctance to take part shows how far Asia is from accepting the political role for APEC that President Clinton would like to thrust on it. He should listen harder to his critics and find other forums for pursuing his regional ambitions.