WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commerce Department, keeping a pledge to initiate a more timely textile-monitoring system, released preliminary first-quarter import data Friday, stoking the flames of controversy over China’s rising economic dominance.
Apparel and textile imports from China exploded in key categories in the first three months of the year, prompting the domestic textile industry to intensify the pressure on the Bush administration to impose China quota safeguards to save U.S. jobs.
U.S. importers, on the other hand, downplayed the increases but braced for an anticipated onslaught of China safeguard petitions, based on the new evidence.
The import numbers from China in the first quarter were staggering in many categories. For example, imports of cotton and man-made fiber trousers skyrocketed 1,521 percent, while shipments of cotton knit shirts jumped 1,257 percent (see related chart).
A coalition of textile and fiber groups, poised to file China safeguard petitions based on actual market disruption, claimed the latest figures confirmed their fears.
“This, on top of prior experience, confirms all of our worst predictions,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “The data shows China’s surge is no one-month anomaly. It is a clear trend undeniably demonstrating severe damage in the U.S. market.”
Tantillo claimed the recent surge from China mirrored increases in 2002 when certain apparel and textile categories were removed from quota as part of a 10-year phaseout mandated by the World Trade Organization.
“It should be no surprise to anyone in the industry or the government,” Tantillo said. “As a result, we think that the facts are undeniable and it’s time for immediate action” from the Bush administration to self-initiate safeguard cases.
Textile and fiber associations, as well as House lawmakers from textile-producing states, have turned up the pressure on the Bush administration in recent months to self-initiate China safeguard cases, which would significantly reduce the government’s review process time.
The coalition of domestic producers has threatened to file market disruption cases if the Bush administration does not move quickly to impose safeguard quotas on China. The industry’s spate of threat-based safeguard petitions filed in October have been stymied by a federal lawsuit and injunction, which has fueled the political debate over China’s potential to dominate global production and imperil millions of jobs around the globe.
It is difficult to weigh whether the federal government will take action to limit Chinese imports, particularly in light of its attempts to garner support for the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement, which faces strong opposition on the Hill.
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, which challenged the government authority to administer China safeguards in the federal lawsuit, said: “I think, given this preliminary data, unless the administration is trying to be alarmist, they really need to also release some kind of analysis with the data as they do with the standard monthly statistics.”
Hughes said, “Clearly, no one should imagine there was any purpose to this release other than getting the data out faster” to help the industry file safeguard petitions. She also downplayed the increases from China, claiming many of the gains fell off in March.
Hughes said many companies shipped their products early in the year in anticipation of safeguard quotas on China, which she claimed accounted for the surge in the first quarter. She added that China had strict quota limits on key categories, so the recent growth is no surprise.