THE number of applications to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group has swollen this month, before the meeting in Seattle where the blueprint for the group's future is to be established. But the surge in potential members has triggered a new row in the group, with some believing this formative time is not appropriate for expanding membership. Assistant US Trade Representative Nancy Adams said yesterday that APEC was fielding an increasing number of applications, from countries and private sector groups, as it was itself finding its direction. From Washington, Ms Adams said: ''In recent weeks we have heard from a number of people wanting to be members or observers. ''There is a very active debate about how to address all these promising countries who would like to join in the process, without harming our ability to produce results when we know our credibility really is on the line. ''The US has not taken a position, and we are trying to broker an APEC consensus and that frankly has not been an easy task,'' she said. APEC growth is just one of a raft of big issues on the table at next month's meeting, already awash in controversy over plans to tag on an informal leaders' summit meeting. Ms Adams yesterday confirmed that representatives of 14 of APEC's 15 members would attend the meeting on November 20, with Malaysia deeming the meeting inappropriate and beyond the purely economic remit. Members also are torn on how far they want to see APEC go. The Seattle meeting is set to call for elevation of the talking shop to a formalised body with the ultimate aim of a lowering of trade barriers within the region, consistent with guidelines laid down by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Ms Adams said some South American countries - including Peru, Chile and Argentina - had lodged applications. Russia, India and the European Community have all signalled they would like to acquire either observer status or full membership. Ms Adams said: ''Not only has the EC indicated it would like some kind of observer relationship with APEC, but a number of other international organisations also have indicated they would like to be there. ''We also have a question about how to involve the private sector as there are a number of private sector groups in the region who are also requesting observer status.'' Ms Adams said the Uruguay Round of GATT, threatened with collapse, was likely to be a hot topic at the Seattle meetings. She said: ''I think there are implications for how APEC members will look at APEC and how others outside might view the APEC process depending on the results and whether we have a conclusion [of the trade agreement] this year.'' APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the US, which is this year's chairman. Ms Adams said the wide range of views on how APEC should develop was not confined to Malaysia at one end and those promoting a bigger more powerful group at the other. ''There is quite a lot of diversity,'' she said.