Garment makers could be the first industry in Thailand to feel the adverse impact of the economic downturn in the United States the Bangkok Post reported. American importers have delayed reconfirming forward orders on garments for the second half of this year, according to Viroj Amatakulchai, a veteran garment exporter.

Mr Viroj, also a senator, suggested that Thai exporters reduce their dependence on the US market, which accounts for around 20 per cent of Thailand's total exports, contributing $70bn last year.

The textile and apparel sectors depend heavily on the United States for around 40-50 per cent of their total sales.

Mr Viroj said that traditionally, US importers would confirm forward orders by January. But this year they had been reluctant to make commitments because of falling consumer spending at home, he said.

Consequently, he forecast a decline in the growth of Thai exports in the second quarter of 2001.

He said his companies had switched focus to Japan instead, where growth was modest but prices were competitive. Other Thai exporters should consider pursuing long-term trade partnerships with the Japanese, he said.

Thailand exported about $1bn in garments to the United States in the first seven months of last year, a 20.9 per cent rise year-on-year. Japan was the second largest market at $149m, up 1.1 per cent. The UK was third at $100m, a rise of 18.2 per cent, according to the Thai Garment Manufacturers' Association.

Somchainuk Engtrakul, permanent secretary for Finance, said many export economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, which depend heavily on the US, needed to focus on less conventional markets, including some Asian destinations.

For example, exports from Hong Kong to the United States account for 23 per cent of the territory's total exports or 26 per cent of its gross domestic product. The figures are similar for Singapore and Malaysia. Thailand's exports to the US are 20 per cent of its total but only 10 per cent of GDP.