Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 9 September 2020



US prepares block on cotton, tomatoes from China's Xinjiang region

David Lawder

Washington | US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have prepared orders to block imports of cotton and tomato products from western China's Xinjiang region over allegations they are produced with forced labour, although a formal announcement has been delayed.

The Trump administration's announcement of the actions, initially expected on Tuesday, has been put off until later this week because of "scheduling issues", a CBP spokesman said.

The Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Centre in China's Xinjiang region. Human rights watchers say centres like this are labour camps. AP

The cotton and tomato bans, along with five other import bans over alleged Xinjiang forced-labour abuses, would be an unprecedented move by CBP and further stoke tensions between the world's two largest economies.

The "Withhold Release Orders" allow the CBP to detain shipments based on suspicion of forced-labour involvement under long-standing US laws aimed at combating human trafficking, child labour and other human rights abuses.

President Donald Trump's administration is ratcheting up pressure on China over its treatment of Xinjiang's Uighur Muslims. The United Nations has said it has credible reports that 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in the region, where they are put to work.

China denies mistreatment of the Uighurs and says the camps are vocational training centres needed to fight extremism.

CBP executive assistant commissioner Brenda Smith told Reuters that the effective import bans would apply to the entire supply chains involving cotton, including cotton yarn, textiles and apparel, as well as tomatoes, tomato paste and other products exported from the region.

"We have reasonable but not conclusive evidence that there is a risk of forced labour in supply chains related to cotton textiles and tomatoes coming out of Xinjiang," Ms Smith said in an interview. "We will continue to work our investigations to fill in those gaps."

US law requires the agency to detain shipments when there is an allegation of forced labour, such as from non-governmental organisations, she said.

'Limited impact'

The bans could have far-reaching effects for US retailers and apparel producers, as well as food manufacturers. China produces about 20 per cent of the world's cotton and most of it comes from Xinjiang. China also is the world's largest importer of cotton, including from the United States.

A Beijing-based cotton trader said the impact might be limited as China brought in about 2 million tonnes of cotton and 2 million tonnes of cotton yarn from abroad each year, which might be sufficient to produce textiles for the United States not using Xinjiang cotton. Xinjiang's output is about 5 million tonnes.

"If Xinjiang cotton goes to the domestic industry and non-Western markets, the impact may be limited; it can probably still be digested," he said.

In the short term, it could also boost cotton imports into China, he added.

In March, US lawmakers proposed legislation that would effectively assume that all goods produced in Xinjiang were made with forced labour and would require certification that they are not.

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