How Has the Apparel Trade Flow Reacted to the Section 301 Tariff Action against China? (updated November 2018)

While apparel products are not subject to the Section 301 tariff yet, the trade action nevertheless has created huge market uncertainties for U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers. Here is how the monthly trade flow of U.S. apparel imports has reflected the impacts of the U.S.-China tariff war:

First, U.S. companies did NOT stop importing from China. Seasonally adjusted data shows that between January and September 2018, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China decreased by 0.6 percent in volume and 0.05 percent in value year on year. Despite the decline, China remained the No.1 apparel supplier for the U.S. market in the first nine months of 2018, accounting for 32.3 percent market share in value and 41.3 percent shares in quantity, only marginally dropped by 1 and 0.7 percentage points from a year earlier respectively .

Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming even cheaper. Notably, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from China dropped from $2.5/SME in 2016,$2.38/SME in 2017 to $2.36/SME in the first nine months of 2018. On the one hand, this result suggests that cost concern is not the most influential factor that drives U.S. companies to source less from China. However, it is also likely that Chinese exporters are intentionally reducing their price to keep their orders and overcome the challenges caused by the Section 301.

Third, there is no perfect replacement for “Made in China”. In response to the market uncertainty created by the Section 301 trade action, U.S. apparel importers are diversifying their sourcing base. That being said, it is difficult to identify a single largest beneficiary–notably, the market shares of apparel exports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, NAFTA, and CAFTA regions only marginally increased in the first nine months of 2018 compared with a year ago.

Additionally, it remains unclear whether the section 301 trade action has benefited U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing. Data shows that in the first ten months of 2018, the production index (2012=100) of textile manufacturing in the United States slightly increased from 92.8 in 2017to 94.3. However, over the same period, the index of apparel manufacturing decreased from 73.6 to 72.4.

Looking ahead, the volume of US textile and apparel imports from China is likely to increase in the short run since U.S. importers are eager to complete their sourcing orders before the new tariff hit.  Usually, companies place sourcing orders several months ahead of the selling season. However, it will be interesting to see if the trade data in the first half of 2019 will reveal the negative impact of the Section 301 action on China’s apparel exports to the U.S. market.

Data source: Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US Department of Commerce

by Sheng Lu

Textile and Apparel Items Removed from USTR’s Original Proposed Product List for the Section 301 Action (September 2018)

On September 17, 2018, President Trump formerly announced to take the Section 301 action against another $200 billion worth of imports from China. The additional tariffs will be effective starting September 24, 2018, and initially will be in the amount of 10 percent.  Starting January 1, 2019, the level of the additional tariffs will increase to 25 percent.

The $200 billion imports from China targeted include 5,745 full or partial lines of the original 6,031 tariff lines that were on a proposed list of Chinese imports announced on July 10, 2018. Included among the products removed from the original proposed list are certain consumer electronics products such as smart watches and Bluetooth devices; certain chemical inputs for manufactured goods, textiles and agriculture; certain health and safety products such as bicycle helmets, and child safety furniture such as car seats and playpens.

Below are the textile and apparel related products removed from the original proposed list:

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Data source: CCCT (2018) 

However, the final $200 billion product list still covers several textile and apparel-related products such as backpacks, handbags, purses, wallets, baseball gloves, hats and leather, and fur apparel, as well as textiles and machinery that are used for domestic manufacturing. In general, the final $200 billion product list includes about 20% consumer products (v.s. only 1% in the $50 billion already subject to the 25% additional tariff), 50% intermediary goods and 30% capital goods.

Trade War Looms over New York Fashion Week

Discussion questions:

  • Why does the U.S. textile industry call for additional tariffs on textile and apparel imports from China whereas U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers oppose the tariffs?
  • Based on the trade theories we have learned so far, why or why not would you recommend President Trump to impose 25% punitive tariffs on imports from China?

Appendix: Comments on the Proposed Section 301 Tariffs on Imports from China (August 2018)

For the complete timeline of the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China, please click HERE

U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry Responds to Trump’s Tariff Announcement against China

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On June 15, 2018, the Trump Administration announced to impose a 25% punitive tariff on a list of Chinese goods based on the results of its Section 301 investigation, which targeted against China’s unfair trade practices related to the forced transfer of American technology and intellectual property. The additional duty will first apply to 818 lines of products on July 6, 2018, which cover approximately $34 billion worth of imports from China. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) said it would issue a final determination on the second set of 284 proposed tariff lines, which cover approximately $16 billion worth of imports from China shortly. The total 1,102 tariff lines targeted by USTR generally focuses on products from industrial sectors that contribute to or benefit from the “Made in China 2025” industrial policy, which include industries such as aerospace, information and communications technology, robotics, industrial machinery, new materials, and automobiles.

In response to the U.S. action, China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) quickly announced its proposed countermeasures, including a 25% punitive tariff on approximately $34 billion worth of U.S. soybean, autos, and fruits effective July 6, 2018. China is also ready to impose the punitive tariff on another list of products, which cover approximately $16 billion worth of medical device, chemicals and energy imports from the United States.

The U.S. textile and apparel industry keeps a close watch on the U.S.-China trade dispute since as much as 36% of U.S. textile and apparel imports come from China. In an announcement released on June 16, 2018, the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) called a victory that no textile and apparel products are subject to the punitive tariff proposed by USTR. The June 15 USTR list also removes the majority of the textile machinery initially on the retaliation product list back in April 2018. However, U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers remain deeply concerned about Trump’s tariff action and its potential negative economic impacts on the apparel sector.

In contrast, the U.S. textile industry, represented by the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) praised the Trump administration’s tariff announcement. NCTO also called on the Trump administration to include finished textile and apparel products on any future lists of imports from China to be made subject to Section 301 tariffs.  Not surprisingly, NCTO’s proposal is opposed strongly by AAFA and the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, representing U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers. As argued by USFIA, the U.S. tariff rates on apparel and fashion products are already the highest among manufactured goods, reaching 32 percent for man-made fiber apparel and 67 percent for footwear. Any additional tariff would constitute a huge, regressive tax increase and have a negative impact on the American jobs.

Appendix: Timeline of U.S. Section 301 Investigation against China

June 15, 2018: The Trump Administration announced to impose a 25% punitive tariff on a list of Chinese goods based on the results of its section 301 investigation

June 4, 2018: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross concluded his two-day trade negotiation with China in Beijing. A White House statement said “the meetings focused on reducing the United States’ trade deficit by facilitating the supply of agricultural and energy products to meet China’s growing consumption needs, which will help support growth and employment in the United States. The United States officials conveyed President Donald J. Trump’s clear goal for achieving a fair trading relationship with China.” While the announcement didn’t mention the next round, it says that the delegation will “receive guidance on the path forward.”

May 29, 2018: President Trump suddenly announced that the United States will impose a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of goods imported from China containing industrially significant technology, including those related to the “Made in China 2025” program.  The final list of covered imports will be announced by June 15, 2018. The announcement also said that the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR) will continue WTO dispute settlement against China originally initiated in March to address China’s discriminatory technology licensing requirements. Additionally, the United States will implement specific investment restrictions and enhanced export controls for Chinese persons and entities related to the acquisition of industrially significant technology. The list of restrictions and controls will be announced by June 30, 2018.

May 19, 2018: A joint statement released by the White House said that the United States and China had led to an agreement for China to buy more goods and services, including “meaningful increases in U.S. agriculture and energy exports.” The statement also said that both sides attach importance to intellectual property protections, agreed to encourage two-way investment and to strive to create a fair, level playing field for competition, and agreed to engage at high levels on trade and investment issues. Additionally, the statement said that the United States would send a team to China to work out the details of the agreement. However, the statement did not contain a specific target for reducing the $375 billion trade deficits.

April 5, 2018: President Trump announced that he has instructed the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to consider $100 billion additional retaliatory tariffs on China, in response to China’s own retaliation against the Section 301 tariffs announced in late March. In a statement released the next day, USTR confirms the proposed new measures. USTR also says that any additional tariffs proposed will be subject to a similar public comment process as the proposed tariffs announced on April 3, 2018. No tariffs will go into effect until the respective process is complete. 

April 3, 2018: USTR released the proposed list of Chinese products to be subject to the retaliatory tariff under the Section 301 action. The proposed list covers approximately 1,300 separate tariff lines and will undergo further review in a public notice and comment process, including a hearing (scheduled at around May 15, 2018). The USTR statement says it will make a final decision on whether to implement the proposed tariff action after the whole process. 

March 26, 2018: USTR filed a WTO case against China’s discriminatory technology licensing requirements (DS542). The US claimed that China’s measures appear to be inconsistent with Articles 3, 28.1(a) and (b) and 28.2 of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS). As of April 8, 2018, the European Union, Japan, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia have requested to join the dispute as third parties. According to the WTO rule, China shall enter into consultation with the US no later than April 26, 2018. If the dispute is not resolved by May 25, 2018 (i.e., 60 days after the request for consultation), the United States may request a WTO panel. As of June 17, 2018, the case is still in consultations.

March 22, 2018: President Trump announced his decisions on the actions the Administration will take in response to China’s unfair trade practices covered in the USTR Section 301 investigation of China’s Acts, Policies, and Practices Related to Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property, and Innovation. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer initiated the investigation in August 2017 at the direction of President Trump. In the Memorandum he signed, President Trump directed the US Trade Representative to level tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese imports. 

January 2018: the U.S. Trade Representative Office submitted its annual report on China’s WTO Compliance to U.S. Congress. The report says that “It seems clear that the United States erred in supporting China’s entry into the WTO on terms that have proven to be ineffective in securing China’s embrace of an open, market-orientated trade regime.”

August 14, 2017: President Trump issued a memorandum directing the USTR to determine if China’s policies regarding IPR theft and forced technology requirements “may be harming American intellectual property rights, innovation, or technology development,” and thus warrant USTR action under Section 301of the 1974 Trade Act.

Related reading: The Section 301 Investigation against China Divides the U.S. Textile Industry and U.S. Fashion Brands and Retailers