WASHINGTON — The Bush administration began collecting data on Vietnamese imports of trousers, shirts, underwear, swimwear and sweaters last week, kicking off a controversial program that eventually could restrain trade by imposing antidumping duties.

The monitoring took effect Thursday, when Vietnam freed itself from import-restraining quotas by joining the World Trade Organization. The administration will consider self-initiating antidumping cases every six months based on the collected information. The cases are intended to combat unfairly priced imports and, if successful, impose five years worth of duties.

Importers are concerned the effort could be renewed and expanded to include other countries, such as China. But textile companies view the monitoring as an important precedent for taking action against China.

Vietnam made up 4.3 percent of the U.S. apparel import market for the year ended Nov. 30, with shipments of 956.4 million square meter equivalents, valued at $3.3 billion. Freed of quotas, the country is poised to expand quickly, but the monitoring program and any resulting anti-dumping cases might moderate that growth.

“This is limited to Vietnam and the Vietnam monitoring program will end at the end of the administration,” David Spooner, assistant secretary for import administration at the Commerce Department, said in an interview.

The initiative fulfills a pledge made by the Bush administration in September to Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.), who were blocking a bill establishing permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam. The bill eventually passed.

The program and any resulting antidumping cases, however, will have only an indirect impact on domestic textile companies, since they don’t generally compete directly with imports from Vietnam. Textile firms are instead trying to shore up their export business, mostly to Central America.

“If the allegation is of dumping apparel or T-shirts, then we can’t look at, by law, damage to textile [firms] or yarn spinners,” said Spooner, who set up the program. “By law, we have to look at the state of the domestic apparel industry.”

However, antidumping laws can be used to protect any U.S. producers. “For better or worse, the law doesn’t require that the industry be of a certain size,” Spooner said.Products that are not made in the U.S. at all should not be affected.

Information on the imports, including the volume, value and average unit value, is being collected under the 10-digit Harmonized Tariff System number. That means the department will be drilling down to specific products, such as knit cotton trousers for women’s and girls’ tracksuits, rather than all trousers.

The information will be reported to the public on a monthly basis. The health of the U.S. industry, based on production, employment and other statistics, will be considered in the six-month review process. The products being monitored might change as the program develops.

“At this point, I don’t know if we can tell how much it will change month to month,” Spooner said. “I’d like to get it right enough quickly enough that we provide certainty.”

If there are changes to which products are being examined, importers will be able to gauge month-by-month where there is some risk of an anti-dumping case being initiated.“When we do our semi-annual review of the data, certainly we’ll not self initiate a case on something we haven’t been monitoring,” Spooner said.

The program creates no new paperwork for firms and Commerce will set up an e-mail notification system to update the industry on developments. People interested in receiving notifications can e-mail their addresses to Vietnam-texapp-monitor-hotline@mail.doc.gov. The same e-mail address can be used to comment on program.Public hearings on the monitoring program will be held in Washington within three months.

Although the initiative came as a surprise to importers when it first came to light, Spooner stressed that he is now consulting with importers and will continue to do so.“There have been no secret backroom promises that we’ll do a dumping case against Vietnam,” Spooner said. “Our only promise is to monitor and I think it’s important to keep in mind we’re monitoring for violations of our trade law.”

For complete coverage see tomorrow’s issue of WWD.

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