- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday blocked some Chinese-made clothing from the United States, acknowledging a surge of imports and the loss of 17,200 jobs this year.

The decision, which is an initial step and does not yet curb new imports, pleased domestic manufacturers, but annoyed retailers and is likely to rile China.

“This decision is the first step in a process to determine whether the U.S. market for these products is being disrupted and whether China is playing a role in that disruption,” said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

The Commerce Department said it would investigate imports of specific products — cotton knit shirts and blouses, cotton trousers, and cotton and synthetic fiber underwear. January-March imports on those garments are up by 1,250 percent, 1,500 percent and 300 percent, respectively, from a year earlier, the department said.

A decision on whether to cap imports to 7.5 percent growth could be made in as few as five weeks, though the process may take several months.

First-quarter imports from China increased 63 percent, by volume, compared with figures from the first quarter of 2004, the Commerce Department said Friday in a preliminary report. Labor Department numbers for March released the same day showed that the U.S. textile and apparel industry has eliminated 17,200 jobs so far this year.

The industry, which employs 665,900 nationwide, said the two trends are directly linked and it welcomed the administration’s decision.

“Our government’s willingness to take this aggressive step against China sends a clear message that the United States will not stand by and allow China to steal U.S. textile and apparel jobs,” said Allen Gant, chairman of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

Importers, who buy foreign-made clothes and sell them to U.S. consumers eager for the latest fashion at low costs, questioned the link between Chinese imports and U.S. employment. Apparel jobs have been disappearing for more than a decade, and textile employment has declined steadily since 2001.

“All that has changed is the attribution of the cause. Until last year, the industry blamed the losses on NAFTA; this year, it’s China,” said Laura E. Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. Implementation of NAFTA, with Canada and Mexico, began in 1994.

Yesterday was the first timethe administration initiated the process of curbing China’s textile and apparel imports, and would be the first new barriers erected since a global quota system was discontinued Dec. 31.

The decades-old quotas on clothing limited developing-nation exports to the United States, Europe and other rich countries to protect their domestic manufacturers. The wealthy nations agreed to start phasing out the quotas in 1994 to help fledgling industries in poorer nations.

The United States and Europe anticipated the potential market disruption and demanded a system of emergency quotas, called safeguards, before allowing China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.

China has rejected formal caps on its exports and accused the United States and Europe of erecting unreasonable and unfair trade barriers.

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