WHEN United States President Bill Clinton called a summit meeting of Asian and Pacific leaders in Seattle, he raised the profile of the Asia-PacificEconomic Co-operation (APEC) forum - and expectations of what the grouping might achieve. A planned ministerial meeting of a fledgeling and deliberately low-key body became, at Mr Clinton's behest, a gathering of the leaders of the dynamo economies, held in pursuit of a US dream that they form a regional trading bloc rivalling the European Union. But after all the build-up, the dream remains just that. Asian leaders did not buy the vision the US wanted to sell. In part, their coolness is related to fears of US dominance of a regional bloc. The United States may be in recession, it may have long-term efficiency problems, but it remains the world's biggest economy, with immense financial, business and political strength. Their reluctance is related, too, to firm views on how quickly a regional grouping with power to impose its will on national governments should evolve. And that is very slowly. But it is also related to a clear vision in Asia about the value of free tradewith the rest of the world (even if, in practice, the value often lies in the open access granted by other countries). APEC can only be a loose grouping at this stage of its development, and of the development of its member nations. The views and interests of the Western countries, looking to Asia for long-term growth opportunities, are not the same as Japan, an emerging economy like China, or the small, still-protective and still-suspicious members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The narrow common interests among the leaders led them to write into their post-summit communique statements of such breathtaking inanity as: ''We are united in our commitment to create a stable and prosperous future for our people.'' It really would have been striking had they said the opposite. Not all, however, was of such banality. The Asia-Pacific leaders have a clear common interest in a free international trading regime. They lent their weight, for instance, to demands for a swift conclusion to the failing talks on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It is here where the value of APEC lies. It is a forum through which Asia-Pacific leaders can speak with collective authority, to give the region a strong voice in world economic affairs. The US interest in Asia (represented by its early moves to form a US-Asia economic axis, replacing its orientation towards Europe) is a sign of the strength of the region's economies. It is appropriate that they find a means of expressing the common views they have. The leaders have agreed to meet next year in Jakarta, thus give them a chance to be heard again - and into the future. The Seattle summit may not have realised the grand dreams of some American officials but it has given Asia a new voice.