WASHINGTON — China and Vietnam continued to dominate textile and apparel import growth in February, the Commerce Department reported Thursday, as agency officials came under stepped-up pressure from U.S. textile interests and Capitol Hill lawmakers to quickly limit shipments from these countries.

In response, U.S. apparel and textile import officials, including major retailers, are countering with concerns that their sizeable sector could be ignored by overly restrictive and hastily applied quotas.

"Our industry is very unhappy," said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade with the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel.

For months, China and Vietnam have led all foreign countries in accelerating imports and prominently figured in the overall 17.5 percent 12-month increase registered in February for all imported textiles and apparel.

Specifically, according to the latest available data, Chinese apparel and textile imports surged 128.63 percent to 532 million square meters and Vietnamese imports climbed 843 percent to 66 million SME.

Thursday’s import tally came as U.S. and Vietnam trade officials met for the second day in Washington to negotiate terms for the U.S. to impose quotas on Vietnamese shipments. U.S. officials have threatened to unilaterally set limits if this second round of talks fails to produce an agreement by today. The U.S. can set limits because Vietnam isn’t a World Trade Organization member.

The February report also added fuel to the domestic textile industries’ push for the Bush administration to impose quotas on several thriving Chinese imports. The U.S. is allowed to unilaterally impose limits on Chinese textiles and apparel as specified in China’s 2001 agreement to join the WTO, while quotas for other WTO countries will expire in 2005.

"I don’t think surging is the right word," said Cass Johnson, associate vice president of international trade with the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, regarding China’s import growth. "It’s exploding."

For the first two months of the year, imports from China rose 131.54 percent, while imports from Vietnam surged 1,122 percent.

By contrast, apparel and textile imports from Mexico, the second-largest supplier of apparel and textiles to the U.S. behind China, fell 9.28 percent in February and 9.55 percent for the year to date.While there’s hand-wringing about escalating Vietnamese imports, mills are more concerned about China bolstering its top spot as the largest U.S. foreign supplier of textiles, with almost 18 percent of the U.S. import market, and the leader for apparel shipments, with an almost 10 percent share, according to year-ending February figures. By contrast, Vietnam has 2.43 percent of the U.S. apparel market and less than 0.25 percent for textiles.

Seven months ago, the ATMI asked the administration to reimpose quotas on five apparel and textile import categories from China that had been lifted as part of the gradual phaseout of WTO-member quotas by 2005.

Last week, Grant Aldonas, undersecretary for international trade at Commerce, addressed the ATMI’s petition and said the agency is close to issuing guidelines for ruling on such requests. Under the procedures, Aldonas said it could take more than three months to make a decision.

Aldonas has been focused on the textile industry since the Bush administration — in a deal in 2001 to garner enough House votes to renew the president’s trade promotion authority, it agreed to help domestic mills better compete with foreign suppliers.

On Wednesday, 18 GOP members of the House Textile Caucus to whom these promises were made agitated for the administration to dispense with the procedures and act immediately to impose quotas on Chinese imports.

"The rules of the trade game with China clearly must change," the lawmakers wrote President Bush, with Reps. Charles Norwood (R., Ga.,) and caucus co-chair Howard Coble (R., N.C.) as the lead signatories. "Our innovative and competitive domestic textile manufacturers deserve the opportunity to compete fairly and should be able to count on our government to protect them and the jobs of the thousands of workers they employ."

Augustine Tantillo, Washington coordinator for the American Manufacturers’ Trade Action Coalition, noted that the Chinese quota issue, known as the safeguard provision, was negotiated in 1997 and it’s been 15 months since China joined the WTO. He said, "The safeguard is meaningless unless it’s used."

Karl Spilhaus, president of the National Textile Association, said of a February meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick: "We were led to believe we would have these [safeguard] procedures within a couple weeks. They delay and delay."USA-ITA’s Hughes said procedures for filing Chinese safeguard requests are crucial, since the level of domestic competition needs to be examined, as well as whether a surge in Chinese imports is due to the loss of trade from other foreign suppliers and not the U.S.

Steve Lamar, vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, with importing members like Kellwood Co. and Sara Lee Corp., said, "The administration is doing what they are suppose to."

Meanwhile, Charles Bremer, ATMI’s director of international trade, said the recent year-to-date increase in total apparel and textile imports of 19 percent will have a "deleterious effect" on prices, since supply far outweighs demand.

As total apparel and textile imports rose 17.5 percent in February against a year ago, they rose 19.2 percent for the first two months of the year to 6.56 billion SME. Textile imports rose 18.8 percent to 3.5 billion SME for the year to date, while apparel imports rose 19.6 percent to 3.058 billion SME.

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