NEXT year is shaping up to be a momentous one in East-West relations. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev have seen to that. The onset of the '90s could see sharp reductions in superpower nuclear arsenals, in chemical weapons stockpiles, and in the conventional forces facing each other in Europe. Thanks to the economic initiatives offered by Mr. Bush at the Malta summit, perestroika may have a little better chance of showing results in the years ahead. At the least, President Gorbachev can show disgruntled Soviet consumers some payoffs - imminent participation in world trade bodies, a US commitment to lower trade barriers, an offer of US expertise to help retool the Soviet economy - from his diplomatic efforts. And arms cutbacks, in themselves, will be an economic boost to Gorbachev.
But benefits from the ``new epoch'' heralded in the post-summit joint press conference are going to spread much wider than the Soviet Union. The world at large now has more than a vacillating hope that the threat of nuclear war will fade. A more cooperative US-soviet relationship carries the hope, too, that flaring regional conflicts can more readily be resolved, free of the added fuel of superpower rivalry.
Malta's dissonant note about Soviet arms in Central America indicate, however, how difficult some of these regional resolutions are likely to be.
The disagreement over extending arms control to naval forces hints at tough negotiations ahead before all the hopes raised at Malta can be realized. The US is far from ready to draw in its far-flung sea power. Still, with 1990 deadlines set for pacts to sharply reduce the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads and troop levels in Europe, the arms control picture has never been brighter.
Gorbachev and Bush wisely agreed to make use of the ongoing Helsinki process to unravel the thicket of problems generated by rapid changes in Eastern Europe. That process, started 15 years ago, embraces all NATO and Warsaw Pact nations and is already geared up to handle military matters, human rights questions, environmental protection, and other issues.
Both Soviet and American publics will welcome their leaders' work in Malta. In both countries, doubtless, critics will take pot shots at various aspects of the summit. But they probably won't be able to slow the momentum begun there.