WASHINGTON — U.S. trade officials are facing a big decision this year — whether or not to reimpose quotas on certain apparel and textile imports from China, which have been growing by leaps and bounds.

Jim Leonard, deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for textiles, apparel and consumer goods industries, and chair of the Committee for the Imple-mentation of Textile Agreements, met with Chinese Embassy officials last month and reportedly raised a "gamut of issues," according to a Commerce spokeswoman.

CITA is currently reviewing a request filed by the American Textile Manufacturers Institute three months ago for import quotas on bras, knit fabric, gloves, nightwear and luggage, all of which had quotas either wholly or partially removed on Jan. 1, 2002 as part of the global quota phaseout.

The ATMI request was filed under something called the textile-specific safeguard, which is part of China’s World Trade Organization entry agreement, and allows the U.S. or any other WTO member to reimpose quotas on Chinese apparel and textile imports for one year, through 2008.

Quotas on all textile and apparel imports from the 144 WTO nations are being removed in phases and will be completely lifted by Dec. 31, 2004, which was determined in the Uruguay Round of negotiations.

The ATMI contends China is becoming a big supplier of knit fabrics, yarns, dressing gowns, gloves and luggage —all categories that are produced in the U.S. and which could displace domestic manufacturers. Imports from China in October rose 117 percent against a year-ago, and year-to-date growth was 110 percent — by far the largest in recent history for a major supplier.

Charles Bremer, vice president of international trade for ATMI, claimed the government is "abrogating" its responsibilities by dragging out a decision on the matter.

"They haven’t asked us for more input," said Bremer. "The request seems to have disappeared down a black hole."

One trade official said there has been progress, but a decision has not been reached.

Importers argue that China is taking away production from other foreign suppliers and not the domestic market, and question whether the ATMI even has a right to ask for a safeguard to be invoked. Bremer has claimed the ATMI has standing."There is a safeguard in the WTO agreement, but nothing has been spelled out in terms of what the process is to bring a petition, how it is evaluated, what the threshold is, who has standing and what factors are taken into consideration," said Stephen Lamar, senior vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

Lamar said he doesn’t expect CITA to make a decision until it determines procedures.

"We are waiting to see what the process is," said Lamar. "If the process establishes [that ATMI] has no standing, then there is no need to talk about where the quotas are."

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