When China said last week that it plans to import up to $1 billion worth of Western technology and equipment, a few smiles must have lit up the faces of Commerce Department officials. Not that the United States will snap up all that Chinese trade. It won't. But even some substantial contracts would look promising indeed to federal officials now anticipating a US trade deficit during 1984 in the range of $100 billion.
The US trade deficit for 1983 - a record $69 billion, up from $43 billion in '82 - must be considered worrisome. As international trade analyst Harald Malmgren notes, the deficit is not the result of ''declining international competitiveness'' by US companies. Rather, it stems primarily from the ''strength of the dollar'' abroad, a result of high interest rates in the US. The high interest rates, meanwhile, are in part the result of massive US budget deficits.
While the strong dollar (in relation to other currencies) attracts foreign savings to the US, it also makes US goods more expensive and foreign goods less costly. The upshot: US exports last year fell 5.5 percent, to $200 billion. Imports jumped 5.9 percent, to $269 billion.
What needs to be kept in clear perspective in looking at the trade figures is that as the US loses export sales abroad, it also loses jobs on assembly lines and factory floors at home. Declining exports threaten existing jobs. They also work against creation of new jobs. By one measurement, 4 out of 5 new jobs in the United States are export related.
What can be done to reverse the trade imbalance?
* Foremost, of course, Congress and the administration need to take decisive action to reduce the spiraling budget deficits to help bring down interest rates. The new budget for fiscal year 1985 that President Reagan will send to Congress later this week projects a deficit of $180 billion. By itself that is too high. Moreover, past predictions of deficits have proved unreliable.
* The US must continue to encourage Japan to open up its domestic market to American companies. US trade negotiators are seeking such concessions in talks with Japanese officials early this week. In 1983 the United States had a $21.7 billion trade deficit with Japan.
Japan should be asked to sharply reduce, if not eliminate, quotas on US beef and citrus products. Japan should also be asked to allow in more high technology products from the US.
* US firms, in cooperation with the federal government, must intensify efforts to win overseas contracts, such as the contracts now planned by China.
In the long run, the US has many advantages in the international trading game.
One often overlooked element: US productivity. Thanks to a low inflation rate and the introduction of robotics on many factory lines, US productivity gains could be quite substantial during the next decade, according to trade expert Malmgren. That will help make US goods highly price competitive.
Throughout its history the US has been a great trading nation, even though it has not depended on foreign trade to the extent of its European trading partners. The US would be remiss in not taking the necessary steps to increase, and protect, its overseas markets.