APIA, WESTERN SAMOA, JUNE 23 -- Secretary of State George P. Shultz, faced with a barrage of questions from Samoan journalists during a press conference, defended French nuclear testing in the South Pacific as environmentally safe and strategically necessary.

The press conference yesterday gave Shultz a firsthand look at the depth of resentment in the South Pacific over French tests at Mururua atoll and took some of the gloss off of his good-will visit to this remote island nation.

Wearing a jaunty blue and white Polynesian shirt and bright flower lei, Shultz told Samoan reporters that he was there to express his "genuine sense of friendship with the people of Samoa and the people of the Pacific."

But the mood did not last long. Almost all of the questions were hard-edged, and most were critical of U.S. and French nuclear policy.

The first reporter asked why the United States did not persuade France to test its nuclear devices in Nevada instead of the South Pacific.

In his response, Shultz defended nuclear tests as necessary for deterrence but pledged that Washington would do its best to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union to sharply reduce nuclear arsenals or ban the weapons altogether.

"Meantime," the reporter added, "the water of the South Pacific will be completely contaminated by nuclear fallout. People on this side of the world, the South Pacific, who have nothing to do with nuclear tests, will be the ones that suffer."

Shultz said he had been assured the French testing was safe.

Following the press conference, a senior State Department official said French nuclear weapons play a part in the West's strategy of deterrence. He said the United States is unwilling to equivocate in its support of France's right to test just to appeal to South Pacific public opinion.

The goal of Shultz's visit was to warn the island nations of blandishments of the Soviet Union and Libya, which have shown new interest in the region.

In an arrival statement, Shultz said his visit was "a sign of the importance the United States places in its friendship with the independent nations of the South Pacific.

"The region must determine its response to efforts by countries not traditionally part of the Pacific scene to carve out a role for themselves," he said.

Asked by one reporter why he did not come "until the Russians tried to make friends in the region," Shultz said that U.S. interest in the area "is longstanding."

The visit concluded a tour that also took Shultz to Italy, Iceland, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia.