MEMBERS of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are to call for a return to grassroots issues at next month's Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Seattle, claiming that the group they agreed to join has drifted beyond a purely economic agenda to encroach on global free trade deals. Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry Rafidah Aziz - who has turned down the invitation to the post-ministerial summit meeting on the grounds that it clashes with her golfing holiday - said yesterday that concern was growing in the region at the way APEC was evolving. She said these worries would be addressed in a speech to be delivered to APEC members at Seattle next month. ''ASEAN economic ministers will make our feelings known at the APEC meeting. We too would like to input into the way APEC should move forward now,'' she said. ''We are six members out of 15, and we are already beginning to express our concerns officially at meetings,'' she said. Mrs Aziz's deputy is to attend the ministerial meetings in Seattle, but no representative will attend the leaders' meeting called by US President Bill Clinton. ''It is irrelevant to the APEC process. It is something Mr Clinton wanted,'' she said. Mrs Aziz was speaking after addressing delegates of the World Economic Forum, held at the Convention Centre. She said APEC was branching into areas at odds with its agenda. Earlier Australian Finance Minister Ralph Willis said there were plans for a finance ministers' meeting next March, and a gathering of education chiefs had been convened. ''The APEC we got into was not to evolve into anything other than with regional meetings on trade and investment,'' said Mrs Aziz. ''But now there is concern that this is happening. There is a feeling that APEC wants to encroach on what the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade wants to do. ''It is an economic forum, not something unwieldy where you will constitute a bloc to yourselves. That will be confrontational,'' she said. Mrs Aziz used her address to the forum to defend staunchly the proposed East Asian Economic Conference (EAEC). She told delegates she was speaking on behalf of all ASEAN countries when she said the caucus would not undermine APEC. She said: ''ASEAN countries have come to a consensus as to how the caucus will be launched. We are doing it with the objective of wanting to get closer to free trade. ''We would like to input into APEC. We are talking about building bridges and you cannot have one huge bridge across the Pacific without first building links within it. ''That link is ASEAN and its neighbours, and then further afield through APEC.'' The Malaysian-sponsored EAEC has been dismissed by certain non-member APEC countries, including the United States, as an unnecessary adjunct. Prospective members Japan and South Korea are still considering membership. Motoo Shiina, a member of Japan's House of Councillors and sharing the platform with Mrs Aziz yesterday, said the group should be promoted as a part of APEC. He said the central question was one of how EAEC was to be harnessed, and Japan was still deciding whether it should join. Mrs Aziz said: ''We are telling the world there is no need to choose one or the other [APEC or EAEC]. They are both mutually compatible and both dovetail into GATT's objectives of free trade. ''EAEC in the initial stages would work towards a strengthening of the GATT system and for future input into the way the GATT system would evolve. We know it's not perfect. It needs to evolve over time.''