It's almost a decade since a South Korean shipping line, Hanjin Shipping, teamed up with Taiwan's Yangming Marine Transport Corp. to offer one of the first direct all-water connections between Asia and the U.S. East Coast via the Panama Canal, without including the U.S. West Coast in the itinerary.

It says much for this alliance, and its obvious niche success, that the lines are still together today on the trade lane.And even if the renewal of the alliance, coming up in February 2001, falls through, a duration of some 10 years makes for a very successful partnership in today's marketplace.

But while these two lines have had it much their own way on this trade through the 1990s, they might be well-advised to watch out for the newcomers who, in recent weeks, have revealed their intentions to jump on the all-water bandwagon.

The move by French line CMA-CGM and its Taiwanese partner, Kien Hung Shipping, probably poses the biggest concern.

The other grouping - Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (''K'' Line), China Ocean Shipping Co. and Yangming - could be seen as a perfect new grouping for Hanjin if Yang Ming decides to opt out of its alliance in February and throw all its East Coast eggs into one basket.

As it stands until February 2001, Yang Ming will move its Taiwan cargo over the Hanjin service, while its Japan and China cargo will move on the newly planned ''K'' Line-Cosco-Yangming service. Presumably, it's not the ideal long-term setup.

But before examining the potentials for CMA-CGM and Kien Hung - and anyone else taking a look at this sea route - let's look at something else. Let's consider the reasons for moving goods along this track, rather than overland to and from the U.S. West Coast, or the other way around, through the Suez Canal.

Hanjin and Yang Ming provide a nine-ship service that offers some interesting transit times. Tokyo to New York, for example, takes a staggering 25 days.

On the Pacific southwest direct trans-Pacific link, Tokyo to Long Beach, Calif., takes nine days; add another four to five days for the overland trip to New York and the total comes out at around 14 days.

Tokyo to New York through the Suez Canal on the Cosco-Yangming service could take as much 30 days with transshipment in Singapore.

So what do we deduce from this? Simple.

If you have time-sensitive goods, you send them via the Pacific and the mini-landbridge.

If your customers are in southeast Asia and don't have time-sensitive goods, you serve them through the Suez Canal.

And if your non-time-sensitive customers are in Central or Northern Asia, you send the goods the all-water way through the Panama Canal.

Oh, how we all wish it were that easy.

But not all the customers of CMA-CGM and Kien Hung have goods that are not time-sensitive. So what is the next attraction of this route?

Well, the perfect alliance runs on successful veins, not just one. Take a look at where these lines have their market potentials.

Last June, Kien Hung introduced a service between Asia and South America's west coast. Several years before that, the line established itself as major carrier on the Asia-South Africa-South America east coast trades, ironically with Yang Ming buying slots.

It will be recalled that Kien Hung also attempted to run a service between Europe and South Africa, but got stung badly because of depressed rates and overcapacity.

In other words, this is no rookie organization looking to haul a few thousand TEUs of low-cost goods on the slow boat to China. This is a company that knows the ropes. It's a company that has worked out the perfect way to link all this together and offer customers further connections to and from the U.S. East Coast.

It's no secret that CMA-CGM's big inroad in this area is the Caribbean and the French West Indies. But the line also has an established marketplace on the U.S. East Coast. There, connections are already in place with the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, southeast Asia and China through transshipment in Malta, for example.

It's my bet - and I know CMA-CGM well enough to stick my neck out on this one - that the biggest attraction doesn't lie in the Caribbean and the West Indies, but more on the U.S. East Coast.

Low rates, non-time-sensitive goods, an additional string to the bow - it all makes sense. They could throw a few bananas in as well, mind you.

In short, when the news broke just after the New Year on this, there were quite a few questions asked, especially this one: ''What on earth does this particular all-water route offer?''

And critics, probably better known as competitors, wanted to know how the companies could make that work.

The answer, as you see, is simple. You just have to ask, though: why is it happening now, just after the Panama Canal gets a new owner? Why not years ago, when Hanjin and Yang Ming found the niche?