WASHINGTON — The U.S. textile industry plans to file safeguard petitions as early as next week against some 20 apparel and textile import categories from China valued at more than $2 billion last year, including cotton trousers and knit tops, WWD has learned.

The anticipated action to limit Chinese imports will intensify the pressure on the White House during the final run to the Nov. 2 presidential election and force the Bush administration to weigh domestic manufacturing concerns against import interests and the potential of straining diplomatic ties with China.

The American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, National Council of Textile Organizations, National Textile Association and American Fiber Manufacturers Association are expected to file the petitions on categories that represented 17 percent of all Chinese imports last year on a dollar basis. They are: women’s and men’s cotton and man-made fiber trousers, women’s and men’s cotton knit shirts, women’s and men’s man-made fiber knit shirts, cotton sheets, cotton underwear, man-made fiber underwear, wool trousers, cotton yarn, knit fabric, cotton and man-made fiber bras, cotton and man-made fiber robes and dressing gowns, cotton sweaters, dress shirts and possibly a man-made fiber fabric category, according to industry sources.

The Bush administration invoked China safeguards last year on five of those categories — knit fabric, cotton and man-made fiber bras, and cotton and man-made fiber dressing gowns and robes. Their inclusion in the anticipated filing next week is a reapplication for a second year.

The U.S. textile and apparel industries are bracing for a seismic impact when global quotas on apparel and textile imports are lifted on Jan. 1 per an agreement reached by the World Trade Organization nations.

The U.S. is the largest textile and apparel importer in the world, importing more than $77 billion worth of textiles and apparel in 2003. Of that total, more than $61 billion was in categories that were still subject to quotas, according to the textile coalition. Some categories had already been liberalized over the 10-year phaseout period.

According to recent studies, China could capture 75 percent of the U.S. market share and 50 percent of the world market after the quotas expire.

The Bush administration last month determined the industry has a right to file petitions based on the threat of market disruption, rather than waiting for actual disruption to occur. That was a key victory for the U.S. textile sector because it allows the industry, employing thousands of workers in key political battleground states in the presidential contest, to proceed with the petitions.Jim Leonard, deputy assistant secretary of textiles, apparel and consumer goods at the Commerce Department, met with a group of textile executives from North Carolina on Wednesday to reiterate the administration’s position on the China safeguards, according to a Commerce spokeswoman. She said Leonard restated Commerce Undersecretary Grant Aldonas’ recent statements.

“The textile quotas will come off Jan. 1, 2005, because that is what the last administration negotiated as part of the Uruguay Round in 1994,” Aldonas has said, according to the spokeswoman. “And the U.S. will consider petitions based on threat because that is what was negotiated under the textile safeguard during China’s WTO accession. [Aldonas] also has made the point that the administration will consider petitions case by case, and when the U.S. industry presents solid evidence of market disruption or threat of market disruption, we will enforce our trade laws-agreements on their behalf.”

The associations plan to file the petitions to counteract what they claim will be a death knell for their industry, imperiling the remaining 696,500 U.S. jobs associated with apparel and textile production, and also putting at risk many of the 30 million apparel production jobs worldwide.

However, the explosive battle over surging textile and apparel imports from China has prompted strong warnings from Beijing and dramatically pitted importers and retailers against the textile industry. In the U.S., it has pressured the Bush administration to either voluntarily initiate the safeguards or accept and approve the petitions. On the international front, representatives of U.S. textile associations have joined 38 other executives from global textile and apparel industry groups and are currently in Geneva to rally support among trade diplomats ahead of a crucial WTO meeting Friday that will examine the ramifications of the quota phaseout.

The spate of China safeguard petitions is expected to trigger a strong reaction from China, which has insisted it will not bow to U.S. pressure to extend the restraints on certain of its products, as well as from U.S. importers and retailers, which continue to challenge the administration’s right to review the petitions based on threat under its current procedures, as well as under China’s WTO accession agreement.

The U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel lashed out at the textile industry’s efforts in a letter sent to WTO ambassadors Wednesday. The association urged WTO officials to stay committed to the phaseout of quotas and accused the domestic textile industry of “scare tactics and gross exaggerations,” that led to the imposition of restrictions on trade in textile and apparel from developing countries.Under the current safeguard procedures, once the petitions are filed, the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements has 15 days to decide whether it will accept them for review. Following that is a 30-day public comment period. CITA then has 60 days to review the petitions and render a decision.

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