By  on October 25, 2006

WASHINGTON — Importers are worried the Bush administration's plan to review apparel and textile imports from Vietnam and possibly initiate antidumping cases will lead to trade disruptions.

Policy changes can have a major impact on companies. The Commerce Department initiated safeguard quotas against China last year, interrupting trade flow and vexing manufacturers trying to bring goods into the country.

"If the safeguards were the devil they knew, this is the devil they don't know," said Stephen Lamar, senior vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

Though different in scale and method, the cases of Vietnam and China are instances in which U.S. textile manufacturers won protections against non-market economies seeking to join the World Trade Organization. China agreed to safeguard quotas when it joined the WTO in 2001, but the system created uncertainty as importers didn't know when quotas would be applied or fill up. This led to a U.S.-China deal setting fresh quotas through 2008.

Vietnam hopes to join the 149-member WTO this fall. However, a deal the Bush administration made with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.), who sought to protect manufacturers in their states, might lead to more headaches for importers. Seeking to unblock pending legislation normalizing trade relations with Vietnam, U.S. Trade Rep. Susan Schwab and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez agreed to an apparel and textile monitoring program once Vietnam joins the WTO. If biannual reviews find imports that are sold for less than fair value, the administration could initiate antidumping cases.

The results of the first review, which would continue through the Bush administration, are expected six months after Vietnam joins the WTO.

Senior fashion executives met with Schwab and Gutierrez Tuesday to air their views on the new policy.

"We want to be open and transparent, and we offered them the opportunity to feed into any type of monitoring program that we create,'' said a U.S. trade official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some companies are interested in talking to us and interested in being part of that process, others have different evaluations."

The government is "stepping in as the plaintiff on behalf of the [domestic] textile or apparel industry in terms of initiating a case," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

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