WASHINGTON — Amid a growing overall trade deficit, China’s apparel imports to the U.S. increased 4.7 percent in February compared with a year ago, reversing two months of declines.
Imports from Vietnam also increased in February, surging 40.2 percent.
China’s gains, rising to 561 square meter equivalents, were mostly in categories such as cotton and man-made fiber dresses, cotton coats and cotton robes and sleep gowns, the Commerce Department said Thursday. They were not subject to quotas imposed in a 2005 U.S.-China agreement. Combined textile and apparel imports from China grew 6.1 percent to 1.6 billion SME in the month.
Vietnam’s apparel imports rose to 131 SME versus February 2007.
The U.S. trade deficit with China has increased to record levels, reaching $256 billion last year. China’s trade policies have been a focus of debate on Capitol Hill, but legislation addressing concerns such as currency policy and government subsidies has not moved out of committee.
The overall U.S. trade deficit in goods and services in February rose 5.7 percent to $62.3 billion from $59 billion in January.
Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said it was surprising that the trade deficit grew in the current economic climate.
“We think the natural forces within the marketplace are being overwhelmed by predatory trade practices and interventionist trade policies on the part of many governments to ensure they continue to grow their market share, even when free market circumstances should dictate otherwise,” said Tantillo, whose group represents U.S. textile firms.
All apparel imports for the month climbed 4.2 percent to 1.8 billion SME, and combined textile and apparel imports increased 1.7 percent to 4.1 billion SME for the same period. Honduras raised apparel shipments to the U.S. 19.6 percent to 108 SME, and El Salvador’s advanced 20.5 percent to 71 SME, showing the benefits of the duty free Central American Free Trade Agreement.
After China, the top combined apparel and textile suppliers to the U.S. were Pakistan, Mexico, India and South Korea. Countries with the biggest declines in textile and apparel imports in February were Canada, South Korea and Mexico.
In the previous two months, textile and apparel import levels from China posted year-to-year declines. Julia Hughes, senior vice president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said, “The big news has been the slowdown from China.”
On a recent trip to Asia, Hughes said there was a lot of discussion about the higher cost of producing goods in China because of inflation and increased labor costs.
For the year, apparel imports fell 1.7 percent to 3.6 SME, consistent with a softening of the U.S. market, noted Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “It’s an echo of the recession [following 9/11], when total imports dropped,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is growing into a key commercial player in the region. Hughes said imports from the country might have been even higher if not for a monitoring program put in place by the Bush administration to check on potential dumping of goods. A first review by the Commerce Department found no evidence of goods being shipped to the U.S. below market value or at less than the cost of manufacturing, which could trigger antidumping penalties.