THE four-year old Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), like all the best economy-focused ideas, has been turned into a political football. The early days of this week's conference in Bali were marked by calls for the grouping to be given more muscle, institutionalised and transformed into a community-status forum. But towards the end the cracks were starting to show: clawing diplomats and academics exposed a counter-movement that could see APEC-the-giant split into parochial factions. The desire, voiced most strongly by Malaysia, to put down stronger roots in the sub-groupings prompted warnings from delegates that the bigger APEC could be subsumed. Donald Emmerson, professor of political science at Wisconsin-Madison University in the US, warned that a caucus of the sort proposed by Malaysia and operating on the basis of majority voting could in principle dictate all the outcomes of the bigger body. He said: ''In traditional United Nations terms - one country, one vote - the EAEC [East Asian Economic Caucus] has the power to render APEC meaningless. ''With nearly three fourths of APEC members inside it, perhaps the EAEC should be renamed the EAOM: East Asian Overwhelming Majority. ''The uniquely Caucasian character of the four states that the EAEC would exclude, needless to say, adds to the sensitivity of its formation. The battle of the acronyms will certainly dog Australian and US proposals to develop APEC as an engine for growth. US President Bill Clinton has been roundly criticised for his handling of the leaders' summit meeting of APEC, having not only glossed over potential fireworks between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also failed to gauge correctly the sensitivity of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members such as Malaysia. Asian economies are well aware now that they can call the shots to an extent hitherto undreamt of: the United States, it appears, is finding it harder to assume what the Malaysian minister present termed humility. Jusuf Wanandi, chairman of Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, was among those attacking Mr Clinton's handling of the summit meeting. ''What the Clinton administration can do to improve APEC is support ASEAN's participation in APEC by accepting the idea of EAEC as a caucus of APEC,'' he said. Philippine Secretary for Socio-economic Planning Cielito Habito said ASEAN's economic co-operation to date had been largely unimpressive, but that it was now ready for take-off. Mr Habito said: ''It is in the area of trade that the ASEAN Free Trade Area [AFTA] will be the backbone of ASEAN co-operation. ''With the AFTA, trade co-operation is expected to be achieved through the reduction of duties under the Common Effective Preferential Tariff [CEPT], a concept that was pushed by Indonesia in the fourth ASEAN summit.'' The CEPT will gradually scale down intra-regional tariffs on manufactured goods and processed agricultural products to between zero and five per cent within 15 years. Others echoed the call for an AFTA with more muscle, but it was the new-born EAEC that proved the real darling on the fringe movement. Malaysia, which alone has firmly repulsed Mr Clinton's invitation to a leaders' summit meeting of APEC in Seattle, underlined ASEAN's thin record of co-operative progress to date. Minister of Finance Anwar Ibrahim told delegates: ''ASEAN, despite its success as a political grouping and the booming individual economies, has yet to achieve something substantial in economic collaboration. ''There are reasons for impatience with the difficulties we now face in moving AFTA from impressive rhetorics to operational reality. ''An even earlier implementation of AFTA must be negotiated while at the same time several modes of bilateral and multilateral economic co-operation such as joint developments, growth triangles and complementary productions must progress at a faster pace.'' The US, of course, wants to join in: it needs the Asia-Pacific region not just as an important cornerstone of its foreign policy, but also as a means of jacking up its own economy, Mr Clinton's key aim. Even incorporating the sub-grouping within APEC is unlikely to win their votes: an Animal Farm-style trade grouping, with some members more equal than others, will certainly not have broad appeal. Rattling out statistics to back up the importance of the region to the US, Mr Emmerson said the Pacific Rim had been America's biggest buyer of exports last year, consuming US$129 billion, and accounting for $344 billion in trade. He said the EAEC could mean trouble for Japan, although the body would first have to decide which non-members, such as Vietnam, would be included. ''American and Japanese observers alike will be watching the October gathering of the caucus carefully to see whether it seems to align ASEAN with East Asia, as [Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad] seems to want, or with the larger Asia-Pacific. ''For Japan to attend an EAEC meeting without the US present would be a significant move. It could be interpreted in Washington, rightly or wrongly, as downgrading of the importance of Tokyo accords on the US-Japan relationship. ''It could also, less probably but still conceivably, place Japan in the difficult position of being asked to join a front against one or other US policy.'' Further down the road, Mr Emmerson depicts a three-legged APEC fragmented into the East Asian, the North American and the Oceanic caucuses. The notion of free trade among ASEAN members, allowing each country to build cheaply on both its own strengths and natural resources and those of its neighbours before exporting to the wider world, is a compelling one. The vision, of course, has its critics. They cry ''protectionism'' every time preferential trading terms are mentioned. But the fact, outlined by the Indonesia Forum in a keynote address to the conference, is that economic regionalism is on the increase and almost half of world trade in manufactured goods falls under existing or proposed regional trade agreements. In proposing that APEC should change its name to the Asia-Pacific Economic Community, ministers have been quick to point out the Asian model will be a looser arrangement than its European name-sake. Too bad that internal squabbling and vested interests among the different factions seem set to be an integral part of both. Who's who in regional trade ASEAN: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Members: Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei. Founded: 1967. AFTA: ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. Members: ASEAN members. Founded: 1992. Agenda: Trade and merchandise liberalisation; a less ambitious NAFTA or European Community. EAEC: East Asian Economic Caucus. Members: Sub-APEC grouping that excludes the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Founded: July 1992. Agenda: Watered-down EAEG - East Asian Economic Grouping - originally floated by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. APEC: Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation. Members: ASEAN, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan. Founded: 1989. Agenda: Open regionalism. PAFTAD: Pacific Trade and Development conference. Members: As APEC (academics). Founded: Mid-1960s. Agenda: Embryonic APEC. PBEC: Pacific Basin Economic Co-operation. Members: As APEC (businessmen). Founded: Mid-1960s; forerunner of APEC. PECC: Pacific Economic Co-operation Council. Members: As APEC (government, businessmen, academics). Founded: 1980.