Not-So-Dire Straits

AMERICA'S president flies to an antiterrorism meeting off the Strait of Tiran and dispatches a considerable naval force to monitor Beijing's war games in the Strait of Taiwan.

Hamas militants, facing a crackdown by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, vow to resume suicide bomb attacks in Israel. Hong Kong's stock market drops 7 percent amid jitters over the Taiwan Strait confrontation.

UN inspectors voice suspicions that there are still hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons, and possibly long-range missiles, in Iraq. Bosnian Serbs torch their homes and exit from the planned multiethnic capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. An Iranian military training unit in Bosnia fails to go home, as provided in the Dayton peace accord. IRA bombers vow to continue their murderous campaign until their version of a negotiating deal is accepted.

Are the peaceful moves that clicked into place so promisingly in 1995 coming unglued?

Hardly. A more realistic explanation of these phenomena is that last year's overoptimism has been replaced with overpessimism. Neither was or is justified. Certainly not the present sense of foreboding.

Examine the trouble spots one by one. First the Mideast, because it's a prime fuel supplier for many crucial parts of the world economy, and because its future helps determine whether we will see a new Islamic renaissance or dark ages. Next, China because it is central to Asian and world economic growth, global pollution control, and population control.

Mideast: terror or rebirth?

There's strong symbolism in holding a summit of leaders who are pushing the perilous peace process at Sharm el Sheikh. Everything about the site and the attendees serves to show how far that peace process has come in three decades of hot and cold war.

It was Egyptian President Nasser's threat to close the Strait of Tiran, dominated by the guns of Sharm el Sheikh, that helped precipitate the 1967 war that resulted in Israeli capture of: (1) Egypt's Sinai, (2) the Jordan-administered Palestinian West Bank, and (3) Syria's Golan heights.

Now Sinai is back in Egyptian hands. Moscow and Washington, which backed rival sides for decades, are cosponsors of the antiterrorism parley. Egypt's president is host, with Israel's prime minister a welcome guest. Israeli ships pass in friendship through the straits. Tourists move freely between the (once-warring) twin ports of Aqaba (Jordan) and Elath (Israel) at the head of the gulf. Israeli-Syrian negotiations over peace and the Golan are on hold but still alive. Palestinian leader Arafat and Israel's Shimon Peres are cooperating. And Peres, rising and falling in Israeli opinion because of violent events, is on the rise again as elections near.

China: How paper the tiger?

The good news is that, despite deep-felt anxiety that Taiwan might slip away, Beijing's need for continuing growth and modernization outweighs its leaders' desire to show their world clout. It's hard to calculate new leaders' actions in their struggle to assume Deng Xiaoping's historic reform-but-not-Russian-fragmentation mantle. But it still seems likely that the carrot to go with the stick now being brandished at Taiwan will be keeping Hong Kong's golden goose laying. That would follow Deng's recipe for using that city as the funnel for investment and expertise while Shanghai is developed as China's financial capital in coming decades.

The Western world has a strong interest in making sure that any eventual reunification of Taiwan with China comes on peaceful, democracy-insuring terms. It also has an interest in maintaining calm relations with Beijing for the aforementioned reasons of world trade and pollution/population control. Taiwan should benefit from, not control, the action.

And also...

NATO's members need to stick to all parts of the Dayton accords on former Yugoslavia. For instance, making sure the Bosnian armed forces get their training from Turkish and other Western-designated trainers, not Iranian irregulars. Europeans can take heart from the delayed success of Turkey's two major secular parties at forming a coalition government. But along with relief should come more European attention to helping Turkish trade and cultural affinity with Europe grow. Neglect, in this area, is dangerous, especially since Turkey can play an important role in Caspian oil flow to Europe, as well as in damping Balkan, Black Sea, and former-Soviet- republic tensions.

Britain, Ireland, and the US are approaching that other outbreak of terror-bombing, IRA extortion in London, with appropriate toughness coupled to willingness to keep talking. As in Israel and Egypt, it's hard to stop deluded avengers. But patient toughness eventually affects their leaders' plans. And that is what counts.

The post-cold-war world is navigating troublesome straits. But they're less dire than they at first seem.

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