With a finally nascent but fragile democratic process and a vital proximity to all the centers of conflict in the region, Honduras quietly has become a cornerstone of U.S. policy in Central America, a role that not all Hondurans relish.

There is concern that intensifying involvement with regional conflicts, preoccupations with arms trafficking and internal leftist subversion could suck this country deeper into East-West conflict over the Caribbean basin.

"It's a big chess game," said Manuel Bonilla, a former treasury minister commenting on Washington's new found interest in Honduras as a bulwark against the leftist revolutionary movements in the area. "It would be better if the United States would take up the problems that confront it in Central America and the Caribbean directly with the Soviet Union, not here at the level of the pawns."

Washington has encouraged the widely supported electoral process here at the same time that it backs a corruption-plagued but politically powerful Army in efforts to interdict arms supplies to the Salvadoran guerrillas. Many Hondurans consider this a self-contradictory policy.

"Whatever strengthening of the armed forces takes place will weaken the political system and the civilian government," said a university professor.

Honduras does face security threats. "We are a sandwich between El Salvador and Nicaragua," said banker Mario Arietti. This country's pine-covered mountains and tropical forests have long been a favorite terrain for smuggling, whether narcotics or, more recently, arms. Virtually all overland supply lines to the Salvadoran guerrillas run through here.

But as the Reagan administration has made arms interdiction a major element in its support of the Salvadoran government, Honduras is drawn into the fray.

Honduran troops are working in close cooperation with Salvadoran government forces along their mutual frontier. The front against the Salvadoran guerrillas gradually has edged into Honduran territory, causing the forced evacuation of thousands of Salvadoran refugees and threatening native Hondurans.

On the southern border, the strong desire of some Honduran commanders to go to war with Nicaragua has diminished since last spring as a result of diplomatic initiatives, the failure of an effective couterrevolution to materialize inside Nicaragua, the growing strength of the Sandinista Army and the gradual realization that the Reagan administration is unlikely to back up its tough talk against the Sandinistas with reliable support for military moves. "As time goes on, there's less action and more reflection," said one source close to the Honduran military.

Many Hondurans worry that the emphasis on immediate "national security" problems overshadows long-range economic, social and political development that might thwart the goals of the radical left.

There is little support here for violent revolution. Hondurans voted overwhelmingly against both leftist extremism and right-wing military dictatorship last month when they elected a civilian regime under the moderate Liberal Party's presidential candidate, Roberto Suazo Cordova.

But there seems to be little real optimism about the future. Honduras has been particularly hard hit by the economic problems endemic to the region, including the cost of petroleum and the generally declining value of its agricultural exports.

According to Arietti, one of the Liberal Party's leading economic thinkers, the Honduran population is rapidly outstripping its gross domestic product, thus assuring that average per capita income, the second lowest in the hemisphere at $565 a year, will decline further.

"To come out ahead," said Arietti, "the country will need to find $1.5 billion over the next four years. Just to start up the new government we need $200 million."

At the same time, Hondurans are aware that with the Reagan administration's budget restraints they can hardly expect a great increase in U.S. economic aid, which will amount to about $50 million this fiscal year.

"The Liberals run the risk of discrediting themselves very quickly now that they are in power," one prominent politician said. "Now that the people have voted massively for the Liberal Party, they want it to deliver. If they do not, it will be hard to avoid violent clashes."

Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed military is waiting in the wings to step in whenever it decides it is needed, or threatened.

A study on the implications of the elections commissioned by the military last summer gives some idea of the high command's thinking about the new government.

It generally paints a bleak but plausible scenario: the people find the Liberals unable to meet expectations and the party becomes wracked by dissension in its own ranks. It accuses the opposition of sabotaging its programs, seeks the aid of the armed forces in repressive measures to handle social agitation, and blames the military for having left the country in a disastrous state.

The Liberals, aware of the possibility of a coup if they push the Army too far on any question, especially the personal finances of some of its officers, declined to participate in a corruption investigation initiated by the constituent assembly this fall. As a result, the investigation never took place.

"We have to start with a blank slate," said a leading Liberal.

This kind of political circumspection already has led some politicians to conclude, as one put it, that "the real power stays in the hands of the Army. We didn't elect an executive but an administrator. The chief of the armed forces is the executive."

The military study ends apocalyptically with a vision of chaos in the country by the end of Suazo Cordova's first year, "worsened by a major international discrediting of the country brought on by Marxists, Christian Democrats and the dissident elements of the Liberal Party."

If such a scenario is to be avoided, the Liberals will need unequivocal backing from Washington, said Arietti. "If the United States doesn't support democracy in Honduras, then Honduras is in danger. It's not just a change in government here, it's the future of democracy in Central America."