The United States posted a merchandise trade deficit of $7.0 billion in January, up $700 million from December, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

The gain was still substantially less than November's massive $8.9 billion deficit and about $500 million less than economists had expected.Japan remained the United States' biggest creditor. The U.S. trade deficit with Japan rose to $3.5 billion. The U.S. deficit with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was $2.0 billion, up from $1.9 billion the previous month.

Western Europe, meanwhile, showed a surplus with the United States of $1.1 billion, down from $1.6 billion the previous month.

January exports, helped by increases in sales of autos, industrial supplies, consumer goods, food and beverages and a decrease in exports in other goods, edged up $1.2 billion from the previous month.

Imports, meanwhile, gained $1.9 billion over December with increases in industrial supplies, cars, consumer goods and capital goods. Imports of food, beverages and other merchandise virtually unchanged.

The United States imported more oil - 170 million barrels - than in January, but the $3.9 billion cost was still 15 million barrels less than the 1990 average.

Crude oil prices fell in January to $22.98 per barrel, down $2.72 from December but $3.25 more than the 1990 average of $19.73.

In the non-petroleum sector, January exports hit $33.5 billion with imports of $36.0 billion, resulting in a deficit of $2.5 billion - $0.7 billion higher than December's deficit.

January non-petroleum imports were $1.8 billion higher than December imports of $34.2 billion.