Widening trade channels

Nothing is more important to the world economy than resisting pressures now being heard in many nations for trade protectionism. The recent months, in fact, have been marked by a series of charges and countercharges in the trade area, including the exchange over whether or not European producers are unfairly dumping cheap steel imports in the United States, the massive $18 billion Japanese trade surplus with the US, and Reagan administration criticisms of Canada's energy policies. It was particularly encouraging therefore that officials from Europe, Japan, Canada, and the US meeting in Florida this past week vowed to resist import restraints and reaffirmed their support for international trade.

The real test, however, will come in the months ahead, if unemployment jumps upward in Europe and North America as expected. Although condemning protectionism in general terms, the Western trading officials declined to issue a formal communique on exactly how to ensure free trade. That may have been appropriate in terms of not stirring up fears on the part of smaller nations or third-world countries that the major Western nations were unilaterally imposing their will on the rest of the world. But the absence of any specific agreement means that each nation will now have to do its part to resist protectionist measures.

The responsibility for ensuring uninterrupted world trade now falls on two nations in particular, the United States and Japan. In the case of the US, the Reagan administration must be firm in warding off ''reciprocity'' legislation in Congress that would allow the US to close its domestic market to nations discriminating against US exports. That does not mean that the US should stand idly by in the face of discriminatory restrictions on its products, or allow other nations to engage in blatant ''dumping'' in the US. Such practices should be vigorously opposed. But the danger in reciprocity legislation is that it would merely invite similar legislation abroad and lead to a curbing of trade in general.

Japan, for its part, would be well-served by expeditiously following through on the promise of its new trade minister, Shintaro Abe, that it would soon make ''drastic'' reductions in many of its nontariff trade barriers. These barriers, deeply ingrained in Japanese society, are one of the reasons for the lop-sided US deficit with Japan last year. That deficit could reach $25 billion this year.

In the long-run, of course, US manufacturers are going to have to do a better job tailoring products for the Japanese market. They will also have to follow the practice of Japanese firms, which enter the US market for the ''long haul'' - looking to a decade or more of competition before turning a profit.

Crucial world trade talks are now scheduled to be be held in November of this year. The Reagan administration should use the intervening months to keep the pressure on its trading allies to draft new rules further liberalizing trade, including trade in services and investments. Opening of commerce is the surest road to prosperity of all nations.

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