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Japan-US tradesmanship

For the United States and Japan, the challenge is now greater than ever to reach a compromise in crucial trade negotiations underway between the two nations. Unfortunately, with the exception of a new agreement involving high technology products, the two sides have come to a virtual impasse in talks aimed at removing Japanese trade barriers to US agricultural exports. That impasse increases the danger of unwise retaliation from the US, in part resulting from a new Congress which is expected to be more protectionist-oriented.

Japan has gone far in promising to open up its highly protected market to a broad range of US manufactured goods. Earlier this year, for example, Tokyo announced tariff cuts affecting some 215 items. Those cuts followed reductions on an even larger list of 1,653 items made at the end of 1981. What is now at issue is the extent to which Japan is actually implementing the cuts, as well as ensuring entry for US agricultural commodities, including citrus items and beef. The agricultural talks sputtered out in stalemate recently, in part because of the political pressures from Japan's farmers.

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As far as beef and citrus products are concerned, US negotiators have asked Japan to drop import quotas altogether - a stance that may be useful in bargaining but seems unreasonable in practice. Japan countered that it would make concessions on six products other than beef or citrus, including tomato puree. Surely both sides can do better than this in seeking to strike a fair accord. The two nations did so when they reached tentative agreement to allow resident subsidiaries of each nation's high-technology firms to participate in government-funded research projects.

Regrettably, protectionist sentiment appears to be on the increase in the US, a reflection of unemployment in older manufacturing industries. The election results appear to have strengthened that trend. A New York Times/CBS poll, for example, finds that support for ''made-in-America'' legislation involving cars has gone from 53 percent to 55 percent in the House. Among the freshmen members , 59 percent favor such an approach. Moreover, while the Reagan administration has tended to resist protectionism, given its free-trade bent, key contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 - including Walter Mondale, Edward Kennedy, Ernest Hollings, and Alan Cranston - have embraced such legislation.

Last year the US ran an $18 billion trade deficit with Japan. The deficit will probably top $20 billion this year. Given that fact, plus the growing support for protectionism in US political circles, it is in the best interests of both nations to reach a mutually beneficial trade accord as quickly as possible.

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