"High-technology" -- or "high-tech," if you're really sophisticated -- has become the latest buzzword around Washington. By one definition, it's what Americans are very good at, and should make sure to keep out of the Russians' hands.

By another definition, it's what the Japanese have also become expert at -- and which they may be refusing to share with us, even though we are allies.

And by yet another perspective, "high-tech" is the kind of economic activity the United States must begin to stress, shucking off its less productive, traditional blue-collar products which the developing countries have learned how to turn out cheaper than we, the Europeans, and the Japanese can.

A draft report by the President's Cabinet Council on Commerce and Trade, made available by a private source, argues that high-technology industries in the United States "are facing a significantly altered competitive environment." It says that "a major challenge" is coming from Japan, and raises the question of whether American superiority can be maintained without some new approach.

"In my state," Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) recently told the National Press Club, "we have gone past the traditional base and are now doing very well, thank you, because of high-tech. We lose that, we're in very serious trouble. There is no next industry coming along. And yet, the attitude of this country, this administration, is pure laissez faire. We're competing with the Japanese and the French, all of whom have national policies. We have nothing."

Tsongas and like-minded Democrats, calling for a new industrial policy, have been labeled "Atari Democrats," after one of the popular line of computers that have captured the imagination of kids 8 to 80.

But just what is "high-tech"? Very few say clearly what they mean by it, and therein lies a danger. A too-inclusive definition led the Reagan administration down the disastrous path of sanctions against the Soviet gas pipeline. Administration and Pentagon hawks, bent on economic warfare against the Soviets, would label virtually everything -- even a kid's toy with a silicon chip -- "high-tech."

As Texas Instruments President J. Fred Bucy has argued many times, technology is neither science nor products like semiconductors, but the process. "Technology," he said in a conversation here the other day, "is know-how. It's knowledge of how to make things -- and it's the know-how that has to be controlled, which means that it's a small list."

Thus, technology doesn't really change hands with the sale of a product, or the licensing of a patent. In the long-simmering trade controversy with Japan, companies there that acquired the key American advances in semiconductor technology did so through direct know-how agreements with a few American companies.

Some of the most vociferous complaints about Japanese competition emanate from U.S. semiconductor companies, pressured by the recession, who for big bucks earlier sold the know-how to Japan. Some of them even now are establishing joint ventures with both Japan and France, through which there will be further high technology transfers. (Many experts here see France--turning sharply inward in many ways -- as a major competitor over the next decade.)

But what may be the biggest and potentially the most divisive "high-tech" issue of all has yet to poke its way into the headlines: because the United States is eager to reduce its budget deficit, it is pushing Japan to assume a larger share of its own defense burden.

Seems reasonable -- but take care. First of all, setting Japan up as a big producer of military hardware simply scares the hell out of most other Asians -- and indeed, out of many Japanese civilians who don't want to see the rebuilding of Japanese military power.

Yet, the Pentagon backs a principle called "co-production," by which U.S. companies transfer the rights, along with the know-how, to Japan and other allies to manufacture military systems or components. The Cabinet Committee, worried about leakages of real secrets through Tokyo to the Soviet Union, is calling for a reexamination of this policy -- and it has some support even in parts of the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Bucy, whose company is a big factor in the Japanese market, and an outspoken antiprotectionist, argues that in the case of Japan, the United States should be selling the military equipment, not the technology. This would allow large economies of scale through production in one place, create jobs in the United States, and be cheaper for Japan.

But Japan, clearly, wants to get the know-how (which it then might improve and adapt to civilian purposes), and is willing to pay the price. So it has been importing the technology for the P3C anti-submarine aircraft, the F4EJ and F15J fighters, and several helicopters and missiles. What this foreshadows somewhere down the road is a thriving Japanese civil aviation industry, able to compete in a field where the United States has had a long-established lead.

Moreover, high officials here say, there is no certain way in which some of this sensitive military technology can be prevented from being passed on to the Russians or elsewhere -- a danger that would not be present if we were merely selling Japan the equipment. "Given the fact that Tokyo is a highly concentrated technology center," said Commerce Undersecretary Lionel Olmer, "it's reasonable to assume that Tokyo is high on the KGB target list."

Olmer, who hopes to see a change in the co-production policy, left for Japan on Friday for talks on this and related high-tech issues.

The strongest force operating to preserving the co-production approach to Japanese defense procurement is, of course, the Japanese defense industry. In a speech last March, Bucy said he thought the problem could not be solved "unless the Japanese government, at high levels, is willing to link the purchase of United States military products to the overall trade balance."

It boggles the mind that a trade/security problem of this dimension can exist while distinguished congressmen -- and even administration free-traders -- worry about "access to the Japanese market" for citrus fruit and beef products, as well as alleged dumping of 64K RAM silicon chips on the semiconductor market here. Presumably, the Japanese hope that we will continue to be preoccupied and diverted by these smaller matters, while they soak up the know-know delivered to them on a silver platter by the Pentagon.