The decision represents a major victory for US manufacturers, who have been pressing the administration to bring these cases on its own rather than wait for the industry to petition the government for relief, a process that could take a longer time.

"The decision is the first step in a process to determine whether the US market for these products is being disrupted and whether China is playing a role in that disruption," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a statement.

The Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements voted on Monday to launch investigations in three broad clothing categories - cotton knit shirts and blouses, cotton trousers and underwear made of cotton and man-made fibres.

Textile and apparel manufacturers in the US have been pressing for help from the government, contending that a flood of imported products has forced 14 plants in five states to close since the beginning of the year, and resulted in the loss of thousands of American jobs.

Officials praised

Industry officials praised the administration for its decision and said it could reduce from four months down to as little as five weeks the time it will take the government to re-impose quotas.

"If the US industry is going to survive against a country that employs numerous illegal and unfair trade practices to gain market share, our government must aggressively utilise the legal remedies available"

Jim Chestnutt,
US National Council of Textile Organisations

"If the US industry is going to survive against a country that employs numerous illegal and unfair trade practices to gain market share, our government must aggressively utilise the legal remedies available," Jim Chestnutt, vice-chairman of the National Council of Textile Organisations, said.

Textile officials pledged to quickly bring their own cases in areas not covered by the government investigation.

"There are many other textile and apparel categories where China's surge is severely damaging the US market," Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said.

Retailers, who have fought legal battles to block re-imposition of quotas on China, charged that the administration's action would just drive up clothing prices for consumers while not saving US jobs.

Hidden tax

They contended that limits on Chinese imports would be made up by higher shipments from other nations.

"This will not save one American job," Erik Autor, international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation, said.

"This will not save one American job. We don't see any reason that the government should impose a hidden tax on US consumers who are already trying to stretch their dollars as far as they will go"

Erik Autor,
National Retail Federation

"We don't see any reason that the government should impose a hidden tax on US consumers who are already trying to stretch their dollars as far as they will go."

Some trade experts saw the administration's decision as an effort to win votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta) covering six Latin American countries, which faces heavy opposition in Congress.

"The administration is applying the Cafta pressure full-throttle right now," Dan Ikenson, a trade analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, said.

At the beginning of this year, a global quota system that limited the amount of textile shipments into the US expired after more than three decades.

Textile imports

Since then, shipments from China of various clothing products have risen sharply. While that has meant lower prices for American consumers, the US clothing industry says it could be wiped out without relief.

The government released preliminary data on Friday showing that shipments of knit shirts from China had increased by 1258% in the first three months of this year, compared with last year, while shipments of cotton trousers were up by 1521%.

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% a year above the level of shipments over the previous 12 months.

The action is available because of the terms under which China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation in late 2001.