WASHINGTON — China has finally done it.

Riding a wave of consecutive monthly increases of 100 percent or more, China has shoved Mexico aside to become the number one supplier of textiles and apparel to the U.S. on an annual basis.

Imports from China tripled in November and rose by 201 percent, while its year-to-date import growth was up 117 percent, according to the Commerce Department’s trade figures released Friday.

The last calendar year that China held the top spot was 1995, the first year of the World Trade Organization, according to Donald Foote, director of the agreements division at Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel.

Mexico assumed the top spot in 1996 as its trade boomed under NAFTA, which was implemented in 1994. At 4.6 billion square meters equivalent, China surpassed Mexico in November, which held steady at a level of 4.3 billion SME.

"This means that China has the capacity to overwhelm the U.S. textile and apparel industry," said Charles McMillion, chief economist at MBG Information Services. "It’s a much more serious problem than 10 to 20 years ago, when the U.S. faced stiff competition from Europe, Canada or even Mexico, because the price differentials are so overwhelming that no level of efficiency or cost cutting and productivity growth can hope to manage this situation."

Meanwhile, all textile and apparel imports grew 25.1 percent to 3.14 billion SME in November against a year ago. Textile imports rose 31.4 percent to 1.76 billion SME against November 2001, while apparel imports increased 18 percent to 1.38 billion SME.

China accounted for more than one-half of the year-over-year surge on its own, while South Korea’s share of the growth was 15 percent and Vietnam’s was 7 percent, according to Foote.

"In textiles, China overtook Canada in November to become our number one supplier, with a trade level of 3.14 billion SME, just above Canada’s level of 3.07 billion SME," said Foote. "China is firmly entrenched in the number two ranking in apparel, far below Mexico and easily exceeding Honduras, our number three supplier."

China’s trade growth for the first eleven months of the year was dominated by three categories where quotas were either partially or wholly removed on Jan. 1, 2002. They include man-made fiber furnishings, primarily curtains, blankets, quilts and comforters; man-made fiber luggage, and other cotton textiles, primarily handbags, travel-sports bags, dish towels and surgical towels.One of those three, man-made fiber luggage, is on a list of five categories that the American Textile Manufacturers Institute has requested for reimposition of import quotas. ATMI has also requested quotas be reimposed on Chinese bras, knit fabric, gloves and nightwear, which had quotas removed a year ago as part of the global quota phaseout.

The ATMI request, currently being reviewed by the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements, was filed three months ago under a special deal China made to secure its WTO membership.

It is a significant decision that both importers, who oppose a safeguard action against China, and the domestic textile industry are watching closely. None of the 143 other WTO member nations has moved to reimpose quotas on China’s textiles or apparel imports.

One of the big questions CITA will answer is who has the right to file such a request.

Importers question whether the ATMI even has a right to ask for a safeguard to be invoked and argue that China is taking away production from other foreign supplies and not the domestic market. ATMI claims it does have standing.

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