NEVER were 12 votes so important to so many people. A round dozen ''yea's'' stand between success and failure of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would open up cross-border trade between Canada, the US and Mexico. If the 12 fall in President Bill Clinton's favour, and NAFTA is signed and sealed, he will arrive in Seattle on Friday flushed with success and in pole position to promote further trade liberalisation. NAFTA's ratification would underscore commitments made in the Uruguay Round of global trade talks, and bolster proposals made within the ambit of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC). If, instead, Mr Clinton arrives at the landmark meeting of leaders of APEC's 15 member economies with a failed three-way trade pact behind him, he will be rather more of a laughing stock than a figurehead. His message - ''We've failed to pull off a pact with Mexico but let's see what can be done with 14 diverse economies across the Pacific Rim'' - would see Mr Clinton not simply losing face, but losing credibility. With the NAFTA vote hanging in the balance, observers say the US President runs a very real risk of finding himself isolated. Delegates already in Seattle say a NAFTA failure would be anything ranging from embarrassing to a fiasco that stands to make a mockery of the much-touted historic meeting between Mr Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen - a supporter of NAFTA - called the potential failure on the eve of the Asia-Pacific meetings a real tragedy. Speaking on ABC's This Week programme, he said: ''I look at the situation that just this week Mr Clinton is going to be meeting with leaders from throughout Asia, which is the fastest growing area in the world today, talking to them about opening up markets, letting US products in there, helping create jobs here in the US. ''And then have them retort and say: 'Well, you wouldn't even open up markets to the next-door neighbour, a country that has a 20th the size of its economy to yours. How can you be arguing this point of view with us?''' If America fails to clinch deals, or at least to pave the way for such deals by creating the base for better relations - especially with Japan and China - Mr Clinton may as well kiss goodbye to his pledge to kick-start the home economy. The nation has racked up massive trade deficits across Asia: US$49 billion in Japan, $19 billion in China, $9 billion in Taiwan. If these markets remain unreceptive to American imports, the kick-start will need more than all the jump leads in America. This is not exclusively an American problem. A recessionary US, fraught with weak relations with the Asian giants of Japan and China, helps no one. A US reduced to tit-for-tat tactics clobbers China, and Hong Kong with it. An increasing amount of Asia's trade is intra-regional, but much of it is just passing through. The final destination for many of the jeans-from-denim and radios-from-components is still the US. This same trade flow supports an entire infrastructure of services, especially in entrepots such as Hong Kong where banking, legal, port and other services flourish on the back of shipments docking in and out. Let there be no mistake: Asian leaders have brought more than woolly clothes to Seattle. They are brandishing lists of demands that can be met only by an economically strong US. China wants to wrest concessions on its trading status - both Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status and imports from the US of sensitive technology will be on its agenda. Hong Kong has grievances over anti-dumping duties and the need for greater access for its services industries. These Asian concerns are as much as anything what makes the NAFTA vote so critical. NAFTA votes are totted up tomorrow Hong Kong time, and the day after Mr Clinton leaves for Seattle. Time is running out in his campaign to sweeten the sugar kings and fish for support among the shrimp magnates. If he fails to win over the dithering 12, Mr Clinton risks going down in history as the man who signed a hat-trick of suicide notes in one day: his own, America's and the future of free trade across the globe.