The Carter administration may decide to give American manufacturers of cheap shoes some protection against imports from South Korea and Taiwan, a key trade policy official hinted yesterday.

But such a decision should not be taken as a signal of a return to a protectionist policy, said Robert S. Strauss, the administration's special trade representative.

At a breakfast conference with reporters, Strauss refused to say what the Carter administration would do on decisions that must be made on American indusrry petitions for protection from imports of shoes, color television sets, sugar, and other products.

On approach that the administration appears to be considering, according to informed sources, is a modest increase in U.S. tariffs on lower-priced imported shoes, possibly coupled with an effort to persuade Taiwan and Korea to establish voluntry quotas.

Strauss said he agrees with organized labor's position that "adjustment assistance" - monetary aid to industries or workers affected by import competion - "sounds good on paper, but when country to excute it, it doesn't work.

Labor leaders have argued that instead of adjustment assistance, industries affected by imports should be protected by higher tariffs, quotas to limit the volume of imports, or a combination of both.

What the admonistration does on shoes and other short-term problems. Strauss said, "shouldn't be read as anything but the best solution to a particular problem that we could come up with on that day."

For the longer term, Strauss said, the administration goal is "a free trade posture" leading to greater world trade and prosperity. But he coupled that restatement of the free trade commitment with a demand for equal treatment from America's trading partners.

In a pointed reference to Japanese color TV sets that he said he had been "flooding" the Ameican market. Strauss told reporters, "We must negotiate trade agreements with Japon that give our products the same opportunity they have here, and I am not sure that our relationships have met that test."

In a separate interview on Wednesday, after his confirmation by the Senate, Strauss revealed that negotiations for a new round of trade concesions will - on his insistence - give a new priority to agriculture products. That portends hard bargaining with the European Common Market, which has restrictions on agriculture imports that are regarded as protectionist in this country.

"I'm not going to go up to the Hill and tell Russell Long, 'Now, Russell, here's a list of industrial commodities where we're trying to get the tariffs cut, but sugar and all those other agriculture commodities, those can wait.'"

In reponse to several questions yesterday, Strauss indicated sympathy with some of the domestic shoe industry's complaints. President Carter must rule by April 9 on a recommendation by the International Trade Commission that tariffs on all shoe imports over the 1974 volume, 265.6 million pairs, be raised from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.

Strauss pointed out that it is difficult for American manufacturers paying a $4 hourly wage to compete with the 53-cents-an-hour wage that he said is the average paid in South Korea and Taiwan. Those two developing countries supply most of the cheap shoes sold in this country.

he said that at first he was under the impression that American manufacturers did not produce shoes competitive with the lowest-priced imports. "But that's bot quite true," Strauss said. "About 25 per cent of the shoes that come in at $2.50 a pait are competitive with $4 shoes we produce." All such shoes retail for about $10 or less.