BUSINESS people at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) gathering have warned against thrusting politics on to the group's agenda. Both private sector and government bodies fear that the leaders' meeting called by US President Bill Clinton, which has been hailed for its role in reinforcing APEC in the eyes of the world, may also serve to undermine its strengths. Operating as a purely economic body allows China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to participate equally and gives APEC a more finely focused vision. Victor Fung, who sits on the eminent persons' group - APEC's advisory panel and which submitted its own report - said the meeting underlined the desire to keep APEC free of politics. He said: ''Businessmen want to try to focus the APEC agenda on economics, and keep it there. ''Any non-economic issues, like human rights, the environment and security - all the big things - are not unimportant, but we feel there are sufficient other forums within the region to address these.'' Delegates at this week's meetings have called for APEC to tackle a whole range of non-economic issues, ranging from the environment to AIDS. Following senior officials' recommendation to at least partially open APEC's doors to business bodies, Mr Fung underlined the relevance of keeping the private sector engaged in talks. ''The businessmen's forum felt it is important to get the businessman's perspective in terms of input, because the whole region is driven from the market up, and so we don't want this to be hugely governmental,'' he said. Even as businessmen urged a ban on the big political items, ministers - whose meetings kicked off after senior officials had laid the groundwork - battled with ''small p'' politics. Ministers must reach consensus on whether or not they are to expand both the scope and size of APEC. Hong Kong yesterday sided with the more cautious camp, which contains most of the Asian countries - Singapore being a notable exception. Secretary for Trade and Industry Brian Chau Tak-hay praised the eminent persons' report, but said Hong Kong could not endorse all its recommendations, such as formation of a looser community.