US textile groups on Tuesday unveiled plans to ask the Bush administration to restrict almost $2 billion of imports of pants, shirts, underwear and other textiles from China.

The first of the current wave of safeguard petitions, covering men's and boys' and women's and girls' cotton trousers, was filed on 8 October the groups announced at a press conference.

Nine additional petitions covering 13 more categories are expected to be filed with the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA)in the next few days.

In total, the ten threat-based safeguard petitions will cover 15 of the 91 product categories on which US quotas will expire on 1 January 2005.

In addition to seeking limits on Chinese imports of textiles and clothing in these categories, the industry also wants a renewal of safeguard protection on three categories of textile products - knit fabric, bras and dressing gowns and robes - that were first imposed last November.

Six industry groups and the textile workers' union Unite Here gathered in Washington yesterday to call for protection from what they fear will be a flood of Chinese products imported into the country when worldwide quotas are removed at the end of this year.

They claim that as many as 650,000 US jobs in the textile and apparel industries may be at risk.

Under WTO rules, US trade officials have until 1 November - the eve of the election - to determine whether to proceed with the cases. Import caps could then be imposed in mid-January, about two weeks after quotas are lifted.

"Absent the implementation of safeguards, China will...destroy the textile and apparel manufacturing complex, one of the largest employment sectors in the United States," said Cass Johnson, president of National Council of Textile Organizations.

The safeguard petitions are being filed under a special provision that allows the US and other WTO members to impose temporary restrictions on textile imports from China if they cause market disruptions.

If approved, the restrictions would cap Chinese import growth in the safeguard categories to 7.5 per cent above current levels next year.

The limitations can be imposed for only one year at a time but US manufacturers can petition for them to be re-imposed for succeeding years through 2008.

But importers and retailers who are against the restraints argue that under WTO rules the United States can only react once there is evidence of a surge in imports.

Kevin M Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), said it was regretful that "the domestic textile industry is focusing their energies and resources on restraining China rather than on growing their best export markets in Central America and the Caribbean." 

The AAFA believes a more constructive response is to push for swift enactment of the free trade agreement among the United States, the Dominican Republic, and the five Central American countries. 

"We view the US-DR/CAFTA as the best way to stimulate export markets for US cotton, yarn, and fabric, while providing an option to China production," he said.

He also voiced his concern that the Administration has yet to publish new guidelines or evidentiary standards to assess threat based petitions.