WASHINGTON — As the U.S. textile industry prepares to file a slew of safeguard petitions against Chinese imports, a senior trade official might have given them some leverage.

The Bush administration trade official told WWD that if the industry-filed China safeguard petitions on the threat of market disruption instead of actual market disruption, the government would not reject the petitions outright, offering the industry a potentially important nuance to pursue.

“The China safeguard — on the face of it — allows for petitions based on threat,” said the U.S. trade official, who requested anonymity. “We have to be careful not to prejudge how we dispose of any petition, and we have to see what is filed and what the facts show when it is filed.”

The administration, until now, has only considered safeguard actions that contain trade and domestic production data as evidence to support allegations of market disruption. The Committee for Implementation of Textile Agreements approved three of four petitions last year, placing quotas on knit fabric, dressing gowns, robes and bras and limiting the growth in each to 7.5 percent for a year.

The 147 member nations of the World Trade Organization are set to lift quotas on apparel and textiles per a mandate signed 10 years ago, and industry groups are expected to file scores of petitions, either in advance of quota elimination at year’s end or in early January.

Faced with one of the most profound changes ever in global commerce, executives at domestic textile firms are urging the administration to make a policy decision soon on the threat component of the China safeguard. It is one of the last mechanisms allowed under WTO rules the industry claims it can use to protect some 700,000 U.S. jobs from the expected onslaught of apparel imports from China.

“We are working to define threat in a pure form as opposed to waiting until after the damage is done,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which includes many textile firms.

“Our industry is convinced that unless we get some sort of mechanism that preemptively deals with the damage sitting on the horizon, there will be hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in the U.S. textile sector and millions lost around the world.”Tantillo said the industry is asking for help from the administration to “help us define a workable, reasonable threat safeguard arrangement.”

On the other hand, importers claim petitions based on threat would be incompatible with WTO rules and, if accepted, could cause a huge disruption in sourcing plans next year.

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, said he couldn’t say whether the trade official’s statement was “some new nuanced position.”

“The textile industry’s attempts to pressure CITA on threat is a back-door way of re-creating the old call system for China, when they could ask for quotas and get them without much effort,” Autor said. “The industry was never happy with China joining the WTO, and they’ve been trying to take away its WTO benefits ever since it joined.”

— K.E.

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