By and  on August 2, 2005

WASHINGTON — All roads are leading to the U.S. striking a multiyear agreement with China to limit textile and apparel imports.

In what could be payback for support from key Southern legislators for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Bush administration took a decisive step toward a comprehensive agreement with China on Monday by deferring until the end of the month several decisions on import restrictions. The decision will give the administration the opportunity to get industry and Congressional feedback on the possibility of a broader deal.

The prospect of striking a comprehensive accord has brought together domestic textile producers, apparel importers and Chinese officials in a rare show of unity: All are pushing to replace the current regime of safeguard quotas with a trade agreement that would offer more predictability for business plans. The talk of a deal on textiles Monday came as the U.S. and China began a drive to improve bilateral relations with a meeting between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo in Beijing, with economics said to be on the agenda along with foreign policy.

Importers and U.S. producers do have differences over what the specifics of any comprehensive arrangement should be. But both sides seek the certainty of a long-term accord instead of the fractured safeguard process, which requires petitions, government reviews and consultations. Plus, if safeguard quotas are imposed, they must be renewed annually.

"Today's decision will allow us time to engage in substantive discussions with our domestic textile and apparel industries, and members of Congress, on whether there is interest in a broader textile agreement with China," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a statement. "We look forward to working with industry and Congressional leaders to get their views on the best way to ensure a level playing field."

The World Trade Organization dropped quotas in January, opening the way for China's apparel and textile imports to the U.S. to shoot up 46.7 percent to 6.2 billion square meter equivalents over the first five months of the year.

The Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements, which is chaired by the Commerce Department, will wait until Aug. 31 to determine if safeguard quotas are necessary on six categories of goods, including cotton and man-made fiber bras and sweaters. Imports from those goods for the year ending May were valued at $975.7 million. So far this year, Commerce has imposed safeguard quotas on seven categories of goods valued at $1.31 billion in annual imports from China.

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