Conglomer-nations

In the long history of civilizations, the tendency to form bigger units - empires, confederations, leagues, common markets - has always competed with the comforting familiarity of local cultures and traditions.

Global village we may be, in terms of trade, action films, Afro-pop, jeans, colas, and the Internet. But tamper with roquefort, sushi rice, or the deutsche mark at your peril.

With that dualism in mind, it's useful to check in on how the branches of "globalism" are faring. Even in dull August, a lot is happening. Much, though not all, is even sensible.

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China, long at odds with the ASEAN group of nine Southeast Asian nations over various territorial and "face" questions, tried to mend fences at ASEAN's recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

By doing so, China gives those Asian growth states a counterbalance to US influence. But they will still need the US as insurance against future Chinese dominance.

We continue to believe that Pacific Rim states should set up periodic meetings of their defense ministers with both US and Chinese ministers invited. Purpose: to defuse crises like those over maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait or off the Spratly Islands, and to curtail arms races.

Evidence that ASEAN members are capable of such confidently expansive thinking shows up in the group's invitation to Japan, China, and South Korea to join in its 30th anniversary summit in December. That kind of all-region summit should also become regular.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Eurasia, it's rewarding to see both localism and European conglomeration struggling forward. Britain's coming referenda on limited legislatures for Scotland and Wales emphasize the logic of local rule. And, on the continent, Germany's uneasy government wins two assists in its drive toward a common money for a slowly uniting Europe. First, the International Monetary Fund forecasts that Germany has tightened its budget belt enough to meet the target for uniting currencies in 1999. Second, 58 German economics professors declare that the German people need not worry: The planned Euro currency will be as strong as the revered deutsche mark.

Finally, to the south there are signs of economic good sense. Brazil, by far the largest economy in South America's Mercosur common market, is shrinking the inefficient government sector of its economy by privatizing at a record pace. That should aid both trade and growth in Mercosur.

Regional cooperation is spreading, but cautiously enough (in most cases) to avoid creating new towers of Babel.

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