Facing a surge of Chinese textile and apparel imports after global quotas were lifted Jan. 1, the Bush administration took the first step yesterday toward reimposing limits on purchases of certain clothing from that Asian nation.
The move is expected to escalate trade tensions between the two nations and comes after intense pressure on the White House from politically powerful U.S. textile interests that have lost 17 mills and more than 7,000 jobs this year.
The Commerce Department's Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements said yesterday that it was starting an investigation to determine whether imports of Chinese-made cotton shirts, cotton trousers and underwear were disrupting the U.S. market.
If the investigation finds such disruption, as expected, it could lead to the imposition of new import limits within the next two to three months. The Bush administration previously has imposed limits on Chinese-made dressing gowns, brassieres, knit fabric and socks, although critics say the White House has not done enough to crack down on allegedly unfair Chinese trade practices.
"This administration is committed to enforcing our trade agreements and to providing assistance to our domestic textile and apparel industry, consistent with our international rights and obligations," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in announcing the action.
Textile industry leaders applauded the news but urged the government to include other goods hit hard by double- and sometimes quadruple-digit percentage increases in Chinese imports. Imports of Chinese-made cotton trousers, for example, jumped 1,500 percent in the first three months of this year from the year-ago period.
If the Bush administration doesn't move more aggressively, textile leaders say, they will file petitions for additional restraints. A previous industry effort to force U.S. action bogged down in court.
"We hope this doesn't mean this is just a symbolic gesture," said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which has led the campaign to restrain Chinese imports. "We believe there needs to be a comprehensive approach to a China problem that would mean covering practically every one of their categories."
Faced with growing opposition from the United States and Europe, China has agreed to monitor its industry more closely and has imposed a tax and licensing system designed to discourage production of cheap commodity goods. Still, partly because of such measures and expectations that new limits might crimp sales this year, Chinese exporters may have accelerated their exports in the first quarter.
A spokesman for the China National Textile and Apparel Council, a trade group in Beijing, said the burst of exports in the first quarter was expected and wouldn't last long. He appealed to the Bush administration to reconsider its move toward setting quotas.
"By doing that, it will harm American importers and customers," the spokesman said, adding that it would also threaten the livelihoods of some of the 19 million Chinese who work in the clothing-manufacturing industry.
Retailers and other U.S. apparel importers, who benefit from cheaper goods, also condemned the Bush administration's decision. They said the latest wave of Chinese imports was simply a continuation of a long-standing outsourcing trend.
Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said China's exports to the United States surged because production had been artificially restrained by the decades-old global quota system that disappeared Jan. 1. She said China is far behind Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala in U.S. sales of cotton shirts.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.