WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports set some records in September and in the third quarter, as China drove the numbers sky-high.

The world’s most populated country was again the main factor in an overall 30.8 percent year-over-year increase in textile and apparel imports for the month, as well as a 25.8 percent increase in the quarter, the Commerce Department’s trade figures revealed Tuesday.

Overall, textile and apparel imports mushroomed to 3.51 billion square meters equivalent in September from 2.69 billion in September 2001. Textile imports rose 42 percent to 1.84 billion SME in September against a year ago, while apparel imports increased 20.3 percent to 1.67 billion SME against September 2001.

The 25.8 percent increase in the third quarter was the largest increase since 1995, according to Donald Foote, director of the agreements division for Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel. For the quarter, textile imports rose 37.4 percent while apparel imports increased 15 percent.

Foote said all of the apparel growth in the first nine months of the year occurred in the last three months. China accounted for 30 percent of the apparel growth, while Vietnam had 15 percent of the gain.

In related news, the U.S. has requested consultations with Vietnam to begin negotiations on a bilateral textile agreement in the first week of December, but has not yet had a response, according to Foote.

"After declining in the first quarter and contributing virtually nothing to the second quarter’s uptick, apparel imports accounted for 30 percent of the third quarter’s climb," Foote said.

Apparel import growth was driven by cotton apparel items, underwear, knit shirts and blouses, women’s trousers and hosiery.

China, not surprisingly, continued to dominate textile and apparel growth. Its imports grew 163 percent in September against a year ago and rose 143 percent in the third quarter.

"I have never seen this kind of increase from a major supplier any time in history," Foote said. "It is unprecedented."

China accounted for 47 percent of the growth in textile imports in the third quarter, while eight other countries, including South Korea and Pakistan, covered 44 percent of the period’s import growth.Charles Bremer, vice president of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, wrote yet another letter to the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements on Tuesday reiterating the need to reimpose quotas on five categories. The ATMI recently asked Commerce officials for import quotas on Chinese bras, knit fabric, gloves, nightwear and luggage, all of which had quotas either wholly or partially removed Jan. 1 as part of the global quota phaseout. CITA is still reviewing the request, which was filed under a special deal China made to secure its World Trade Organization membership.

"China has the ability to dominate world trade in these products," Bremer said. "They are eating everybody’s lunch."

He claimed imports of knit fabrics from China are undercutting the benefits of the Caribbean preferential trade program, a chief concern of U.S. officials.

"It is cheaper to bring Chinese fabric here, cut it here, send it to the Caribbean for assembly and pay the 20 percent tariff, which undercuts the whole Caribbean preferential program [with the U.S.]," Bremer said.

Stephen Lamar, senior vice president for the American Apparel & Footwear Association, claimed the numbers "don’t bolster" the argument for invoking the safeguard against China. "We are seeing China take away production from other Asian countries," as opposed to domestic producers, contended Lamar.

He noted that China isn’t the only success story. Countries such as Vietnam, El Salvador, Pakistan, India, South Korea and Russia also grew during the first nine months of the year.

Countries involved in the U.S. preference programs also increased their exports in the first nine months, according to Lamar. He pointed to the Caribbean region, Jordan and sub-Saharan Africa, which all posted increases in apparel and textile imports, although at a much smaller growth rate than China’s surge.

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