A ruggedly handsome British major with flashing blue eyes and sandy blond hair curling out from under his beret, wearing immaculately laundered fatigues, strode through the mass of Quonset huts here on the edge of the jungle and explained to a visitor from London, "This is one of the best places we've got for practical soldiering."

In fact, for the troops of the Queen's Regiment in Rideau Camp, and particularly the officers of what is called Battlegroup South, Belize is something like a military paradise.

Not because they live in luxury -- except perhaps for the silver service and sterling regimental goblets in the officers' mess -- but because they have a chance to do what they have been trained to do. There is a certain attraction for a British soldier in defending one of his nation's last big colonies from "the Guats" across the border.

The threat from neighboring Guatemala, which claims Belize, is thus far nothing more than that, but, as the soldiers here regularly remark, "We have to take it seriously."

The Guatemalans, they say, could attack from a number of directions.

Of approximately 14,000 men in the Guatemalan Army, it is believed that about 6,000 could be deployed to the Belizean front at any time. They could infiltrate across the border on the high fingers of land that run through the marshes. They could send in paratroopers to cut key road junctions. Most of the Guatemalan Navy is at Puerto Barrios only a few miles south of the Belizean coastal town of Punta Gorda.

But the British are waiting with four Harrier jump-jets capable of taking off and landing vertically and armed with laser-guided rockets. They have Puma helicopters, some of the most sophisticated troop transport around. Their air base is guarded with Rapier ground-to-air missiles, and there are fleets of Land Rovers.

By contrast, the Guatemalan armed forces can most often be seen moving their troops along the border in dump trucks.

The British respect their opposition, which they consider one of the best armies in Central America, but as long as things are quiet the colonial troops try to maintain certain standards of the good life, brewing tea in their remote observation posts, only occasionally interrupted by Guatemalan feints along the frontier.

About 18 months ago the Guatemalans pushed a roadhead right up to the border. If they had continued another four miles into Belize, they could have linked up with the main road network of the colony at a town named Pueblo Viejo.

They didn't, and now a small contingent of British soldiers watches the isolated roadhead night and day.

The British soldier is as much a part of Belizean culture as white rum, and older Belizeans remember some regiment or other -- the hard drinking, barroom brawling Inniskillings, for instance -- as fixtures of their youth.

But among the Belizeans the presence for centuries of these British troops so secure in their training and hardware has created an atmosphere of almost complete dependence.

The most Belize's Defense Force is expected to do is watch out for internal security and patrol the borders. Protecting them is out of the question. Belize can't afford the sophisticated British hardware, and most Belizeans show little inclination to soldiering.

"With independence things are going to change," sighed one young Belize City street vendor of recruitable age. "But you're not going to get me to join any army. You're not going to get me to fight against the Guatemalans. Those people are mean."