- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2004

U.S. manufacturing and labor groups are asking the Bush administration for import caps on almost $2 billion in clothing and fabric from China.

A series of petitions filed starting last week are part of a broad industry strategy to protect domestic textile and fiber companies when a global system of quotas expires Jan. 1.

Six industry groups and the textile workers’ union UNITE HEREsaid yesterday that protection from China is crucial.

“Without decisive action by the U.S. government, the 350,500 jobs lost since January 2001 will pale in comparison to the jobs that will be lost in 2005 and beyond,” said Edgar Romney, executive vice president of UNITE HERE.

The decades-old system allowed industrialized nations such as the United States, Canada and members of the European Union to set specific limits on imports, sheltering domestic companies while also allowing developing countries to fill market niches.

But early data indicate that China will dominate some segments quickly once quotas are gone. The United States lifted a small number of quotas in January 2002, and China’s share of the U.S. market in those categories jumped to about 70 percent in June from 9 percent in 2001.

China is expected to capture about 50 percent of the U.S. clothing market, up from 16 percent, once all quotas end, the World Trade Organization estimated.

But China agreed to a system of “safeguards” when it joined the WTO in 2001. They allow the United States to limit growth of Chinese clothing and fabric imports to 7.5 percent in the event of “market disruption.”

The administration had hesitated to accept petitions ahead of quota elimination, but it shifted gears in September and said it could accept petitions asking for caps because China is threatening to disrupt the market.

“Cases can’t be simply anecdotal. There has to be hard evidence of a threat,” said Mary Brown Brewer, a Commerce Department spokeswoman.

The new petitions asking for import caps on Chinese-made trousers, shirts, underwear, cotton sheets and other products are carefully timed. The Bush administration must decide whether at least one merits further consideration by Nov. 1 — the eve of the election — and would decide whether to curb China’s imports by mid-January, potentially maintaining a seamless system of quotas.

“We have compiled what we believe is an overwhelming case,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, one of the six industry groups to file petitions.

China is furious. An official quoted in the People’s Daily, a government-controlled newspaper, said last month that new restrictions would damage “broader cooperation between WTO members, the next round of WTO trade talks and China’s fulfillment of its obligations.”

Some U.S.-based clothing companies and importers also criticized the protectionist push.

“These quotas would continue the failed protectionist policies of the past 40 years while doing nothing to create or preserve U.S. jobs,” said Erik Autor, international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation, a trade group.

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