By  on September 16, 2005

WASHINGTON — American and Chinese negotiators said Thursday they will return to negotiations for a fifth time with the goal of reaching a comprehensive apparel and textile import agreement.

The scheduling of the next round of talks, to be held here on Sept. 26 and 27, came as domestic textile groups petitioned the Bush administration to reapply safeguard quotas on $3.4 billion worth of Chinese imports. Restrictions on those goods expire Dec. 31.

"An agreement would provide both our manufacturers and retailers with much-needed certainty," said David Spooner, special textile negotiator with the U.S. Trade Representative's office. "The United States, though, will continue to utilize the China textile safeguard when circumstances warrant."

The reapplications, which include nine petitions covering 16 types of goods, including cotton-knit shirts and cotton trousers, were partly meant to keep the heat on the talks.

"The U.S. textile industry is refiling these petitions now to give the U.S. government the opportunity to renew the current safeguards seamlessly in January 2006 if no comprehensive textile agreement is reached," Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said in a statement.

Petitions have to wind their way through a public comment and decision process from the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements that can take several months. China agreed to safeguards, which limit annual growth to 7.5 percent and can be renewed through 2008, when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Safeguards are a stop-gap measure meant to protect domestic textile and apparel firms facing a sudden flood of imports after the WTO eliminated a larger system of quotas Jan. 1.

Apparel and textile imports from China soared 45.8 percent through July to 9.43 billion square meter equivalents. A comprehensive apparel and textile deal would regulate imports for at least the next couple of years and inject more certainty in the marketplace than the current regime of safeguards. The U.S. has pushed for low growth over a range of categories through 2008. In turn, China has sought higher growth on fewer categories through 2007.

The last round of talks ended Sept. 1 in Beijing with little progress and CITA immediately imposed safeguards on bras and synthetic filament fabric, but delayed decisions on four other safeguard petitions until Oct. 1.Some importers were wary of the U.S. position going into the talks.

Stephen Lamar, senior vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said the reapplication of the safeguard petitions will "probably just sour the mood" of the talks.

But Lamar said China might be in a better position to deal since it completed a similar round of negotiations with the European Union. Working on two apparel and textile import deals at once complicated things for China.

"The USTR position simply mirrors the U.S. textile industry's, which is essentially, cover as much as you can," said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation. "If that's what we end up with, then what's the point of negotiating this agreement?"

Textile groups, which would prefer a broad deal, have said they are also content to fall back on the safeguard system.

"We are going to limit Chinese access to the market one way or the other," said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.

Tantillo said textile concerns were also looking at ways to protect their industry beyond 2008. NCTO and AMTAC refiled the safeguard petitions, along with the National Textile Association and the union UNITE HERE.

In related news, CITA helped free up goods embargoed under safeguards to help hurricane victims.

"U.S. apparel importers approached CITA asking if their embargoed goods could be donated to the relief effort," said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. "When people want to help, government should find a way to help them do it. Today, CITA took action to make this happen."

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