Peter Mandelson, the European Union's trade commissioner, on Wednesday resisted pressure to introduce immediate restrictions on Chinese textile imports, insisting that inconclusive trade data meant the EU could not justify curbs for the time being.
Concerns about Chinese clothing flooding European and American markets have been triggered by the worldwide lifting of textile quotas on January 1.
The US administration has taken the lead in preparing itself to counter an influx from China. But the European Commission on Wednesday showed it wanted to be able to follow suit when it adopted guidelines to help determine how it would apply safeguard measures on Chinese imports.
The EU's executive body has managed to collect relevant customs data on textile imports since January from only 20 of the 25 EU member states. Cyprus, Malta, Finland and Ireland have provided no figures, while those supplied by the UK were on Wednesday deemed “unusable” by a Commission official.
Mr Mandelson said the data collected so far provided “a mixed picture”. “I do believe in vigorous and rapid action when it is supported by the facts. It is too early to judge what market disruption will arise.”
Mr Mandelson has been caught in an internal European dispute about how to respond to China's booming textiles sector, which represents a fifth of the $400bn world market. His cautious stance is certain to anger France and Italy, which have led demands for immediate curbs to protect struggling European textile companies.
However, Mr Mandelson also stressed that he was in principle ready to pull the sanctions trigger, although a move is now unlikely before June. He charged that it was “unfair” of Sweden and other critics of potential curbs to suggest such a response would demonstrate growing European protectionism. He noted safeguard measures would be temporary and fully in line with China's terms of accession to the World Trade Organisation. “We should not confuse protection with protectionism,” he said.
Meanwhile, US textile producers on Wednesday said they would ask their government to impose new quotas against China on 14 additional categories of products, including dressing gowns, cotton and fibre sweaters and brassieres. The request, which will trigger an investigation by the US government, follows a Commerce department announcement on Monday that it would launch its own investigations on imports of cotton shirts, trousers and underwear. If enacted, the quotas would limit China to 7.5 per cent annual growth in sales in the US in those products.
The actions now cover products that accounted for more than half of US textile and apparel imports last year, and could increase pressure on China to negotiate a deal to restrain its exports to the US.
The US textile producers said they were seeking a “comprehensive agreement” with Beijing that would restore managed trade in textiles and clothing.
Commenting on the EU-US dispute over aircraft subsidies to Boeing and Airbus, Mr Mandelson said he still hoped for “a negotiated and amicable solution” rather than litigation at the WTO. Mr Mandelson also shrugged off criticism from Robert Zoellick, his US counterpart. He said: “The issue is policy, not personality. I have taken harsher personal attacks in my political career.” However, he suggested Mr Zoellick's own negotiating approach had been constrained by Boeing's lobbying. “I am sure he is trying to do the best he can of difficult circumstances. Politically he has little or no room for compromise, given that Boeing has things pretty sewn up in Washington and on [Capitol] Hill.”
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