THE agreement reached at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum's summit in Indonesia is welcome, insofar as it goes. The region is benefiting from the erosion of barriers to intra-Asian trade, and the extension of this process globally can be expected to serve the interests of the continent's dynamic economies. However, any agreement that unites such diverse economies as Chile and China, the US and Papua New Guinea, is likely to be short on detail. The APEC Economic Leaders' Declaration of Common Resolve, issued in Bogor, is no exception. As Financial Secretary Sir Hamish Macleod has pointed out, the fact member countries need only 'endeavour' to remove trade barriers considerably weakens the pledge to end protectionism by 2020, while an opt-out clause means recalcitrants need not feel committed by their commitments. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has already forcibly expressed his reservations. His readiness to strike a note of discord in international forums is beginning to make him look like the Margaret Thatcher of Asia, while his repeated attempts to give life to the dead duck he calls the East Asia Economic Caucus - APEC minus the Caucasians - suggests that personal, domestic and international agendas all fuse in his mind. Nonetheless, Dr Mahathir has a point. Many countries built up their own industries behind protective barriers, and while developed nations have now discovered the benefits of free trade, it is far from self-evident that removing barriers would be quite so beneficial for developing nations, any more than the benefits of democracy and capitalism were immediately felt throughout eastern Europe. It is also a little difficult to accept at face value Japan's commitment to free trade, when up to now Tokyo has shown interest in opening every market except its own. All the indications are, however, that the dynamism that infuses most Asian economies, and the momentum of their expansion, means they stand to benefit from any development that facilitates international trade. Such changes may overtake the conservative timetable set in Indonesia, and APEC's 2020 vision could turn out to be myopic.