FINALLY the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum seems to be coming of age. After years of being derided as little more than a talking shop, the 18 nation-body now shows signs of being on the verge of acquiring some real significance, as ministers from its member states gathered in Jakarta yesterday to prepare for Tuesday's summit meeting of their leaders. One sign of it was that for the first time, APEC was deemed important enough to be targeted by protesters. Banner-waving East Timorese protesters broke into the US embassy, demanding American President Bill Clinton press for the release of their jailed guerilla leader Xanana Gusmao, when he arrives in Indonesia today. Yet their confrontational tactics are unlikely to yield results. Indonesia yesterday denounced them as of 'not much value', while US diplomats have made it clear that human rights will not be a priority during the Bogor summit. All involved recognise that, while human rights do have a legitimate place on the international agenda, APEC is not the appropriate forum, no matter how tempting it may be to embarrass the host country during such a high-profile gathering. There have been difficulties enough in bringing together 18 nations, with often conflicting interests, even without such distractions. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad boycotted the last summit in Seattle and remains intensely wary of the trans-Pacific forum, instead promoting an East Asian economic grouping that could rival APEC. Such suspicions were still much in evidence yesterday as Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz continued to rally support against setting a date for trade and investment liberalisation throughout the region. Other member-states also have their own agendas. For China, there can be little doubt that founding membership of the World Trade Organisation, which replaces the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on January 1, is far more important than anything APEC may discuss. For South Korea, the priority is rallying regional support to blunt North Korea's nuclear ambitions and persuading its Asian neighbours to lean on Pyongyang to open up its borders and allow free trade on the peninsula. Such a scenario would open up the long-term prospect, as US Secretary of State Warren Christopher suggested yesterday, of North Korea joining its southern neighbour at the APEC conference table. But, if there is one thing which can unite most Asian members of the forum, it is suspicion of US intentions - especially Washington's pressure for swift moves towards trade liberalisation. Hong Kong is an exception in that. Our economy is already so open that we could only benefit from any moves to lower tariffs throughout the region. Elsewhere it is a different picture. From Tokyo to Beijing, US pressure to throw open Asia's markets are seen as an attempt to economically dominate the region, and provide some distraction from President Clinton's problems on the domestic front where he is still suffering from the humiliating defeat of the Democrats in the mid-term Congressional elec-tions. Such suspicions are understandable. Certainly the US has done much to contribute to them by its past record of trying to throw its weight around in Asia: on everything from textile quotas to anti-dumping actions. But such suspicions should not be allowed to cloud the otherwise worthwhile goal of trade liberalisation, which could create tens of millions of jobs and spread prosperity across the region.