The US government has responded to surging imports of textiles and clothing from China by launching an investigation to see whether they are disrupting the US market.

The move is a first step towards the possible introduction of safeguard quotas in six major product categories including trousers, knit shirts and underwear.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said the action was part of the "process to determine whether the US market for these products is being disrupted and whether China is playing a role in that disruption."

The interagency Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) is to launch so-called safeguard proceedings in three clothing categories: cotton knit shirts and blouses; cotton trousers; and cotton and manmade fibre underwear.

CFree trade must be fair trade and we will work to ensure that American manufacturers and workers compete on a level playing field," added Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

US textile and apparel makers and labour unions, who have been calling for help from the government, see Monday's decision by the Bush administration as a major victory.

Their case has been helped by preliminary data released by the government on Friday that showed a sharp rise in shipments from China following the abolition of quotas at the beginning of the year.

Imports of knit shirts from China increased by 1,258 per cent in the first three months of this year, compared with last year, while shipments of cotton trousers were up by 1,521 per cent. 

If the government decides that Chinese imports are disrupting the US market, it has the power to re-impose quotas limiting growth in textile shipments in various categories to just 7.5 per cent a year above the level of shipments over the previous 12 months.

This action is admissible under the conditions with which China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation in late 2001.

The CITA panel will begin a 30-day comment period and make a determination within 60 days on consultations with China.