By LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

Since taking office in 1993, L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan has taken just two trade missions one to Israel, and an abbreviated trip to Asia marred by Riordan's decision to cancel an audience with the Japanese prime minister.

But the mayor criticized in the past for giving short shrift to foreign trade plans to make up for any shortcomings next month by leading a delegation of local political, trade, tourism and business leaders on a 15-day mission to Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan.

Trade industry officials and mayoral aides say the trip comes at a crucial juncture. With Asia's economy on the ropes, the Riordan visit will help shore up relationships and convey the message that Los Angeles is not just a fair-weather friend.

"In international trade, you need to be in the markets in the good times and bad times," said Carlos Valderrama, director of Latin American operations for the law firm Carlsmith Ball Wichman Case & Ichiki.

The mission was partially inspired by the response of the state of Texas to the Mexican economic crisis, said Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo.

Following the devaluation of the peso, Texas officials organized a series of trade missions to Mexico, which allowed local firms not only to take advantage of the strong dollar but to build new relationships with Mexican partners.

Texas' two-way trade with Mexico now exceeds that of California, despite the fact that California has a much larger Mexican American population.

Delgadillo said the city hopes to duplicate that success in Asia.

"Most of what's happening Asia will be short-lived," he said. "And as it turns around, the relationships built in times of need will be very profitable in times of plenty."

Asia is Southern California's leading trading partner, with more than $120 billion worth of cargo flowing through local airports and seaports to and from the region each year. Economists have warned that an expected slowdown in Asian economic activity, coupled with the continuing surge in the value of the U.S. dollar, will exacerbate America's trade imbalance and take an inevitable toll on some of L.A.'s key industries including technology, entertainment and tourism.

Riordan aides say the mayor will be traveling with a number of local business executives, but they wouldn't identify any of them. Riordan himself said last week that his office was still awaiting confirmation on the names.

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