WASHINGTON — In a dramatic but likely temporary reversal, apparel and textile imports from China fell 10.4 percent in February compared with a year ago, the first such decline since September 2001.
The drop, which is related to restrictions in a U.S.-China accord signed in November and steep increases from China a year ago, came a day after U.S. officials told their Chinese counterparts to do more to correct imbalances in the trading relationship.
China is still by far the largest exporter of apparel and textiles to the U.S., with shipments of 1.1 billion square meter equivalents, worth $1.5 billion, arriving in February. Apparel shipments from China retreated 25.9 percent for the month, while textiles saw a downturn of 1.6 percent.
“Last year was kind of an aberration in terms of the level of imports, particularly early in the year,” said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. “We’re seeing a return to normal patterns.”
Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said China remains a threat to U.S. textile firms.
“If you take the numbers apart and look at the categories where China is not under restraint, the threat is loud and clear,” he said.
Following China’s lead, total apparel and textile imports from the world fell 5.7 percent to 3.7 billion SME, worth $6.6 billion.
Imports shot up last year after the World Trade Organization scrapped a decades-old quota system regulating trade. In particular, companies rushed to bring in goods from China before the U.S. began imposing temporary safeguard quotas on the country. Safeguards were eventually replaced by the bilateral agreement imposing quotas on 34 types of Chinese imports.
Some of the categories registering declines were those covered under the deal, such as cotton trousers, women’s and girls’ knit cotton shirts, and underwear. In all, categories under restraint saw declines of 56.5 percent in February and made up 10.1 percent of the textile and apparel imports from China.
Apparel and textile imports contributed to the overall U.S. trade deficit in goods and services with China, which narrowed to $13.8 billion in February, down from $17.9 billion in January.
“The focus of the relationship has been the deficit and the lack of balance that deficit represents,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez Tuesday said at a press conference Tuesday after the annual meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce & Trade.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who cochaired the meeting with Gutierrez and Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi, said, “Our goal is to open the Chinese market to our products and our services, just as we have opened our market to China. We aren’t there yet, but we’re making progress.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Wu noted that the U.S. has a deficit not only with China, but with the world. Commerce Department figures placed the total U.S. trade deficit at $65.7 billion in February.
“The U.S. is the world’s most-developed country, while China is the world’s largest developing country, and our two economies are very much complementary with each other,” she said. “We are willing and ready to observe the spirit of equality, mutual benefit and win-win, and ensure a sound and smooth development of our two-way trade and economic ties.”
The summit, which was a prelude to a meeting between President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao next week, produced some new agreements, but no big breakthrough that would impact apparel and textile trade.