The `Trades' of March

THE unease among United States trading partners as the White House works to give practical definition to its trade policies is evident. At its root are justified concerns that trade wars could break out as the Clinton administration seeks a more active role in opening markets to US products.

High-level meetings this week and next are focal points for those concerns:

* Today, Jacques Delors, the European Community's president, meets with President Clinton in Washington. Several trade disputes are pending. One involves the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which the US says is too heavily subsidized and which competes head to head with Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas. On March 22, the US is set to exclude EC companies from bidding on US telecommunications and public-works contracts because of alleged discriminatory purchasing practices for similar EC projects. US an tidumping tariffs on imported steel also are at issue.

* A round of talks has just begun to develop protocols to the North American Free Trade Agreement. These would deal with issues such as environmental regulations, workers' rights, and assistance for US workers displaced by sudden surges in imports or the shift of companies south of the border. Without added safeguards, including monitoring and enforcement, the pact may not clear Congress. These issues touch on sovereignty and motive. Mexico, for example, is concerned that environmental concerns may be in voked more as a pretext to exclude its products from US and Canadian markets than as a safeguard.

* On March 22, the US and Japan will hold talks on Tokyo's failure to meet the goals outlined in a 1991 agreement on US access to the Japanese computer-chip market. These talks come in the larger context of an emerging Clinton administration trade policy regarding Asia, in which the Commerce Department would spend money to help keep high-tech firms competitive, while the US trade representative would fight for more-open markets.

One element adding to the overall unease is the US trade deficit. The US Commerce Department's broadest gauge of US trade activity posted a $62.45 billion shortfall for 1992. With that kind of a showing, with the US economy recovering while its trading partners struggle with recessions, and absent the broad removal of trade restraints that the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would provide, protectionist sentiments can grow.

These should be resisted, even as Mr. Clinton rightly presses for greater access for US products.

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