The US government on Friday announced it was re-imposing safeguards on three categories of Chinese textiles in an attempt to curb soaring imports.

The Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) approved the safeguard action on cotton knit shirts and blouses, cotton trousers, and cotton and manmade fibre underwear.

"Today's action by CITA demonstrates this administration's commitment to levelling the playing field for US industry by enforcing our trade agreements," commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a statement.

"We will consult with the Chinese to find a solution that will permit the orderly development of trade in a quota-free environment," he added.

According to US trade data, the volume of US imports from China through April 2005 in the categories covered by the new safeguards surged 1505 per cent in cotton trousers; 1346 per cent in cotton shirts; and 347 per cent in cotton and manmade fibre underwear.

In terms of volume through April 2005, the safeguard petitions approved on Friday cover 1.97 per cent of total US textile and apparel imports from the world and 7.4 per cent from China.

Also, the three safeguards cover 11.2 per cent of US imports from the world in the categories affected.

The decision has been praised by US textile and clothing manufacturers - but has infuriated both Beijing and US retailers who believe the new limits on Chinese imports will lead to higher prices for consumers.

"We are pleased that the US government approved these cases. The unprecedented surge of Chinese imports imperilled tens of thousands of jobs, leaving the US government no choice but to act," said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition (AMTAC).

Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said: "The fast action to re-impose quotas by the Bush Administration today has saved thousands of textile jobs in this country and we are extremely grateful."

However, Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Chong Quan on Saturday responded by saying that the move "violates the spirit of free trade and the basic principles of the World Trade Organisation."

In a statement on the ministry's website, Chong said: "The Chinese side urges the United States to correct its error in order to prevent the implementation of trade protectionism measures from casting a shadow on the trade relations between the two sides."

He also said China retains the right to take "further measures under the framework of the WTO."

The US government will now request formal consultations with Beijing - this action being the trigger to limit the growth of Chinese exports to the US to 7.5 per cent.

The US and China then have 90 days to consult and try to reach an agreement on limiting the growth of Chinese exports to the United States in these categories. 

If no agreement is reached, the US can maintain the 7.5 per cent growth limit through the end of calendar year 2005.

The US textile industry began pursuing threat-based safeguards on these categories in the summer of 2004. In early April 2005 the government released comprehensive preliminary data on Chinese imports, then self-initiated investigations on the biggest categories affected by this surge.

The new quotas on Chinese imports have been imposed less than one week after the official comment period on those investigations closed. 

The European Union is also studying nine categories of Chinese textile imports which may lead to restrictions being enforced.

The US textile industry has additional safeguard cases pending on other categories too. "The US textile industry plans to file several more safeguard cases in the near future," added Tantillo.