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Reagan's China trip distracts US from Central America

This has been the week when President and candidate Ronald Reagan drew a richly embroidered Chinese curtain over the center-stage Washington drama of the past month, his enterprises in Central America.

The curtain was embroidered with a prospect for new markets for American goods in China. It diverted attention from Mr. Reagan's military operations in Central America. These have been embarrassed and slowed down by the disclosure that they have involved a direct American role, not only in mining the harbors of Nicaragua, but in earlier raids on Nicaraguan ports, including the blowing up of oil storage tanks at Corinto on Oct. 10.

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The Central American operations have not been canceled. The construction of United States airfields and command-and-control facilities, and the stockpiling of arms and ammunition go on - particularly in neighboring Honduras. By early next year the foundations will be in place for almost any type of operation against Nicaragua which the President might order.

But for the moment, an anxious Congress has been assured that the mining has ceased. It is presumed that the CIA has been told to knock off direct use of US personnel in other types of military pressure on Nicaragua.

It is a plausible forecast that between now and election day in November we will be hearing less about the United States role in the various civil wars in Central America. Republican politicians are uneasy about the danger of their leader, Mr. Reagan, being cast in the role of swashbuckling warrior. They will feel more comfortable if he specializes in building the US economy.

The China trip provided the ideal opportunity to push Central America and the Middle East to the back burner while Mr. Reagan acts as super-salesman. He flew off to China saying he would do anything to promote American sales short of putting ''buy American'' stickers on his luggage.

US trade with China will likely continue to grow modestly, but trade is not the main reason Reagan abandoned his fondness for Taiwan in favor of mainland China. The experts stress the fact that China absorbs ''25 percent of the Soviet military budget.''

Western intelligence sources locate 52 of 184 Soviet Army divisions on the Chinese border. According to the Pentagon, 135 of the 378 new Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles are aimed at China.

But right now the strongest political argument the Republicans have is the state of the American economy. Last month, food and heating oil prices dipped enough to keep the inflation rate under control. The consumer price index rose by two-tenths of 1 percent.

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So this week we have Ronald Reagan the happy salesman off to communist China rather than Ronald Reagan the stern warrior chasing communists through the jungles of Central America.

In the Mideast, events are in slow motion, pending the Israeli elections on July 23. The Syrians are presiding over what they hope will be a gradual restoration of peace among the warring factions of Lebanon. If Israel's Labor Party wins the election, diplomats assume a possible opening for resumption of talks aimed at a settlement between Israel and the Arabs.

But can US diplomacy play a positive role during the final three months of the US election campaign - the period between the Israeli election and the US vote in November? If not, diplomacy will probably have to be put off until next year.

The past week has produced another example of Libyan use of terrorism in the streets of London, and US assertions that more must be done to counter such acts , including preemptive action.

Diplomatic immunity was strained by gunfire from the Libyan Embassy in London. Britons are incensed at the idea of the entire Libyan staff flying home without anyone being charged and held for the fatal shooting of a London policewoman and the wounding of other people.

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