- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

U.S. imports of Chinese clothing swelled in January, a rush of new products following the end of international quotas that for decades had limited global apparel trade.

Total U.S. apparel imports from China increased by 47 percent from January 2004 to January 2005, the Commerce Department said yesterday. China now accounts for a quarter of all textile and apparel imports.

Industry groups in the United States and Europe, where Chinese clothing imports also are surging, are telling their governments they need immediate protection or will face the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

“The message to the U.S. government is, act now or we will lose half a million jobs in the industry,” said Cass Johnson, president of the National Coalition of Textile Organizations, a Washington trade group.

The U.S. textile and apparel industry has shed 9,700 jobs during the first two months of the year, the Labor Department said. There are 673,400 textile and apparel workers in the United States, less than half of the 1.5 million of a decade ago.

Chinese textile and clothing exports to the 25-nation European Union, meanwhile, have increased by 46.5 percent in value, according to China export figures.

“The time has now come to limit the seemingly voracious appetite of Chinese exporters for the European market,” said Bill Lakin, director general of the European Apparel and Textile Organization, a Brussels trade group.

American retailers, who benefit from falling prices and a wider array of choices as China and other countries gain easier access to the U.S. market, called the industry claims “alarmist ‘sky is falling’ assertions.”

“Clearly, U.S. importers and retailers are taking their business where it makes the most sense. China is one of those places but so is Honduras, Bangladesh and elsewhere in both the Western Hemisphere and Asia,” said Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.

Ms. Jones noted that imports from around the world had increased 6.4 percent, indicating that the global market is shifting but that the U.S. market is not being flooded.

The United States and Europe are the two biggest customers of apparel in the world. A system of quotas since the 1960s had limited imports from China, India and other developing nations, but in 1995 members of the World Trade Organization agreed to phase out the trade barriers by the end of 2004.

Industry groups now are demanding that their governments cap Chinese imports, a system of safeguards that China agreed to when it joined the WTO in 2001.

The Bush administration yesterday said it is concerned with the import increase from China but would not say whether it will invoke the safeguard measures.

“We will raise this issue as part of our ongoing dialogue with the Chinese to reinforce U.S. concerns over our textile trade disparity and to seek solutions,” said James C. Leonard III, deputy assistant secretary of the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles and Apparel.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said, “I will take appropriate action at the appropriate time,” Agence France-Presse reported.

If the administration does not initiate the safeguards itself, industry groups can petition for protection, a process that takes about four months.

China has resisted formal caps; the Chinese Embassy’s press office did not return a call yesterday seeking comment on safeguards.

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