Trade ministers from the Pacific Rim's most powerful countries listened, but decided the idea was ahead of its time.

A proposal to create an Asia-Pacific Economic Community, with a timetable for free trade within the community, faded into the background as the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation forum concluded over the weekend.APEC ministers declared freer trade the cornerstone of their efforts, but said they fear any attempt to develop a timetable for removal of trade

barriers would split APEC.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with other developing APEC countries, oppose using APEC to create a trans-Pacific trading bloc. Some Asean nations fear non-Asians would dominate such a Pacific trading area.

Mr. Clinton called for movement toward that Pacific economic community. He urged APEC leaders to adopt the same vision that created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

"APEC can provide a counterbalance to our bilateral and global efforts to open world trade," Mr. Clinton said. "If we encounter obstacles in a bilateral negotiation, we should be able to appeal to other APEC members to help resolve the disputes. If efforts to secure global trade agreements falter, APEC sill offers us a way to expand markets within the fastest-growing region of the globe."

Still, after meeting with other APEC leaders at a summit last weekend on Blake Island, Mr. Clinton acknowledged that he had agreed to give Japan more time to eliminate barriers that limit U.S. export sales there. But he still predicted that U.S. exports to Japan will expand markedly in the next year.

It also was clear that Mr. Clinton had made less progress than he had hoped for in trade talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The U.S. government contends that China continues to evade U.S. textile quotas, copyright laws and market access guidelines.

APEC delegates later endorsed the "small steps" that Mr. Clinton had sought - creation of an Asia-Pacific business round table and development of an Asia-Pacific education foundation - but did not act on a report by APEC's Eminent Person's Group calling for a Pacific economic community.

Winston Lord, assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the White House was not disappointed that APEC had not endorsed a call by its Eminent Persons Group to start work on a Pacific community.

"APEC works by consensus," he said. "We certainly did not mean to try to set up a free trade area right away. Look how hard it was to get Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement), even though we have a lot more in common than all the APEC countries (have with each other)."

U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor also unveiled a program designed to help the United States re-cement its relationships with Asean countries.

Mr. Kantor said the United States intends to build a "major new commercial partnership" with the six Asean countries that will feature a combination of government programs and private sector actions to break down barriers to development of telecommunications, transportation, electric power and environmental technology.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei are Asean members.