BEIJING — Five months into a year they had hoped would present a huge opportunity to grow their businesses, Chinese textile manufacturers instead find themselves a pawn in a high-stakes trade showdown.

While importers and manufacturers in the U.S. and European Union have gone to the ramparts, aggressively lobbying their governments to defend their interests, Chinese competitors have kept a low public profile on the issue of safeguard quotas. Rather than trying to overtly influence Beijing’s response to the threat of restraints, this country’s makers instead are focusing on what they can control — like staying a step ahead of their competitors.

“It’s become a political issue,” said Steven Zhao, a representative of the Shenzhen Yangtze Development Industries Ltd., which exports cotton garments for use in the medical industry in the U.S. and Europe. “A lot of companies think our government should protect us. [If restrictions against Chinese companies were to happen], it wouldn’t be fair. We have a competitive product, and people should be allowed to have it.”

Commerce officials from the Chinese government in Beijing have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks about the threat of legislation against Chinese textiles.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told EU foreign ministers, who were on their first official visit to China, that China and Europe have a good relationship and should work to resolve the textile trade disputes. Wen said the two sides need to work together to settle the trade disputes.

“We should start from the general situation of maintaining the comprehensive strategic partnership relations between China and the EU, strengthen dialogue and exchanges on an equal footing and seek an appropriate way to resolve the trade issues,” Wen said during a meeting with Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and British Ambassador to China Christopher Hum.

Many Chinese manufacturers said they feel that they are unable to influence the debate happening abroad on the future of their industry, and are instead concentrating on domestic issues, including a dramatic post-quota increase in competition, which has been driving prices and profits down, and the subsequent strain on resources such as skilled workers.

“There is not much else we are doing right now except focusing on the quality of our products and our prices,” said Sabrina Wang, sales director for Shanghai Hengying Trade Co.

This story first appeared in the May 17, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Beijing-headquartered company exports apparel accessories, including linings and buttons, to the U.S., Italy and India.

Others say that, even if restrictions are imposed from overseas, they are certain they will find a way around them. Now that Chinese manufacturers have had a taste of the post-quota success, they are unwilling to give it up.

“It’s clear that the need in the market is there,” said Fair Lu, manager of the Sunlong Textile Co., a synthetic-fiber fabric manufacturer with locations in Changzhou and Kunshan, who is expecting sales to increase by 50 percent this year if no restrictions are imposed. “If we have to, we will find other ways to supply it, like going through Hong Kong or another country.”

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