WHEN United States President Bill Clinton is shaking the hand of his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin and Indonesian President Suharto is giving himself a self-congratulatory pat on the back, Pawang Hujan will be chanting in the background. He has been hired by the organisers of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Indonesia to use his mystical powers to ensure the gathering of top government ministers does not get bogged down. His role, however, is not political. Mr Pawang has been put in charge of trying to control the weather during the APEC meeting in the hope that President Suharto's moment of glory in the grounds of his palace in the rainy city of Bogor is not destroyed by a downpour, degenerating into a mud-fest for the region's most eminent politicians. Mud slinging, however, is beyond even Mr Pawang's control. Since Jakarta will be knee-deep in politicians for most of the next 10 days or so, the chances of there being no clashes of opinion, ideology or of personalities are at best remote. The presence of loquacious Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad - who boycotted the last APEC meeting in Seattle - will be enough to set many representatives off. If he does not do the trick, President Clinton's apparent plan to use APEC to talk about human rights should prove suitably combustible. True to form, the Chinese delegation also has the potential to disrupt proceedings. Add to this troublesome cocktail the cultural, economic and political differences of the 18 nations within APEC's embrace and there is a brew strong enough to knock the top off the most well-intentioned trade pact. And since politicians rarely agree, the chances that the representatives of APEC's varied economies will manage to reach some kind of consensus appear distant. But underlying the differences are also fundamental similarities, most notably a common desire to further the development of free trade between member states and the rest of the world. In other words, they share the 'APEC vision'. Such vision statements include the facts that APEC represents 40 per cent of the world's population, nearly 50 per cent of the world's total trade and embraces the globe's most rapidly growing economies. Members say APEC has the potential to transform Asia into the most vibrant trading region in the world. APEC favours 'open regionalism' which would remove trade barriers for countries within APEC and would allow free entry for non-APEC members to trade in the region. If it is a success it would be one of the most powerful and significant trading agreements ever. But that is a big 'if'. There may be an APEC vision, but it may also be a mirage and so-called vision statements are notable only for their banality. But for the moment, banality is the key to APEC's success. It is a lot easier to get 18 nations to agree to general statements than to specifics, and it is this more than anything else that will characterise the forthcoming meeting in Indonesia. Conclusions will be reached, but they will be couched in the broadest terms. One look at the potential agenda is enough to realise this has to be the case. Two high-powered working groups were set to up to thrash out topics for discussion during the week-long summit, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and the Pacific Basin Forum (PBF). The report compiled by the EPG - which is made up of top academics and businessmen - was submitted to President Suharto in September and called for the gradual extension of freer trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region culminating in the removal of intra-regional trade barriers by the year 2020. It suggested the process begin in the year 2000, with all industrialised nations being barrier-free by 2010 and developing nations aiming for a 2020 deadline. The report by the PBF - which consists of 36 business leaders from 16 APEC countries - reached broadly similar conclusions, but suggested a more aggressive 2010 deadline for both developing and developed countries to remove their trade barriers. In summary, both working groups said moves should be made towards free trade and gave distant deadlines for doing so. Hardly radical stuff. But even with such a general agenda there are dissenters whose objections could prevent a consensus. Most notable among the unhappy voices is that of Dr Mahathir, who has called into question the composition of APEC and lobbied for an organisation of his own invention called the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC). The EAEC is almost identical to APEC with one very important proviso - it does not include the US or Australia. It is the Malaysian Government's contention the APEC forum is in danger of being dominated by 'non-Asian' nations to the detriment of the nations it is supposed to benefit. Dr Mahathir, known for his strident diplomatic language, has stated the EAEC is not meant as a rival to APEC, but as a forum for Asian nations to discuss their own ambition, free from pernicious Western influences. The US rejected the idea of the caucus out of hand and immediately incurred Dr Mahathir's wrath for doing so. Letting his tongue run away with him, Dr Mahathir said at the time: 'The United States has formed the trade bloc NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and we have accepted it. But we haven't formed a trade bloc, yet they are against us. Why? Because of our colour?' Malaysia is not anti-APEC, but its firm belief that the forum is open to Western manipulation could lead to some serious difficulties in reaching a consensus this week, especially if Mr Clinton and Dr Mahathir renew their antagonistic stance. Second on the list of dissenting voices is China, which is in favour of moving towards free trade, but disputes the deadlines being imposed by APEC. Deputy foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan warned fellow APEC members against being impatient in moving towards free trade and said the organisation was in danger of 'building castles in the air'. Li Enheng, a director at the Trade Department, said: 'In order to promote the trade liberalisation process of the region, if most of the APEC economies would like to have a timetable, we may go along with a timetable, but it should be indicative, flexible and non-binding.' Rival APEC members have questioned the validity as well as the logic of a flexible deadline. The timetable is important to China for one reason. The US is insisting China be classified as a developed nation in its application to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). China, conversely, insists it is a developing nation. Should China be classified as a developed nation it will have to remove its trade barriers earlier than if it were a developing nation, and thus expose itself to the world's competitors at a much earlier stage in its economic transformation. The decade between the deadline for developed nations to remove trade barriers and that suggested for developing countries is 10 years of protectionism China's economy could do with. This argument between APEC's largest and most powerful members could once again hinder moves toward trade consensus should it rear its head during the Indonesian meeting, although there were signs late last week that the US was preparing to compromise by allowing China to be classified as a 'country in transition'. On the back benches of the dissenting team is Japan, which has expressed fears that what one nation defines as free trade may not tally with another's definition. Tetsuya Endo, Japan's ambassador to the APEC meeting, said Japan supported moves towards free trade but would not blindly accept all proposed liberalisation measures. He said it was very difficult for free trade to be defined given the different stages of economic development of the member nations. Such a stance at the meeting will do little to impress the US, which has been embroiled in a trade battle with Japan for the last year and only narrowly averted a trade war. So what can be expected during this week's meeting? In the same way that Indonesia is willing to make a leap of faith in trusting a witch doctor with the weather, it is apparent it will also take paranormal forces to reach any detailed consensus during the gathering. But all indications are that a detailed consensus is not on the agenda. Instead, the raison d'etre of this year's APEC meeting is to reach a general statement of intent. Its aim would seem to be to get 18 signatures on the bottom of a document that states they are all committed to freeing up Asian trade by the year 2020 at the latest. That should not be difficult. Yet there is still the potential for disagreement on these simplistic statements. Malaysia could choose to be bloody-minded. China could stamp its foot about deadlines. Japan could revert to protectionism. But in all likelihood, after token rows, there will be 18 signatures on a document come November 15. The statement will be broad, generalist and banal, and will represent the last time the APEC members will be allowed such a luxury. Having set themselves a deadline, APEC members are going to have to start talking details at next year's summit, and that is when the real work will begin.