* Structural steps needed to address inequality
* Japan may seek TPP deal without U.S. - Aso (Adds quotes, detail)
By Leika Kihara
WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said on Friday he does not think the Group of 20 debate will lean toward favoring protectionism over free trade ahead of the group's summit in July, even as the new U.S. administration threatened to impose measures to restrict imports.
Aso also said Japan would not rule out the option of negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement without the United States, partly on the hope of convincing President Donald Trump to reconsider his decision to abandon the TPP.
Friction over trade has been among the key themes of debate at the Group of 20 finance leaders' meeting as Trump's "America First" platform threatened the group's commitment to resist all forms of protectionism.
Trump on Thursday launched a trade probe against China and other exporters of cheap steel into the U.S. market, raising the possibility of new tariffs and triggering a chance of retaliatory action.
But Aso shrugged off the view that Trump's approach on trade would force G20 nations to change its approach.
"I don't think any country believes the global economy should shift to protectionism from free trade," Aso told a news conference after attending a gathering of Group of 20 finance leaders.
"Even the United States isn't saying that protectionism is good. What it's saying is that it will put its national interest first."
G20 nations should not try to solve income inequality by resisting free trade, but instead should deploy fiscal, monetary and structural measures to spur growth, Aso said.
"I don't think the G20 debate will move toward embracing protectionism instead of free trade. If such talks emerge, Japan will defend free trade," he said.
Aso's remarks followed those of Germany's finance minister, who said earlier on Friday that he was optimistic about reaching a "non-confrontational solution" on trade with the United States at the July summit.
On trade negotiations with the United States, Aso reiterated his view that it would be in both the interests of Japan and the United States for Washington to re-join TPP talks instead of pursuing a bilateral free trade agreement.
While it was still desirable for the United States to join the TPP, Japan was open to negotiating a TPP deal with 11 nations excluding the United States, Aso said.
"Some countries are keen to do this and will come up with various ideas. There's no reason to turn this down. Various options are available and (negotiating without the United States) is one of the options," he said.
The Trump administration has signaled its intention to push for a two-way trade deal, while Japan wants to avoid a bilateral free trade agreement for fear of facing direct U.S. pressure to open up highly protected markets like agriculture and beef. (Reporting by Leika Kihara; Editing by Diane Craft and Leslie Adler)