The United States will bring trade cases against China (search) to determine whether quotas (search) should be re-imposed to protect textile and clothing manufacturers against a surge in Chinese imports, the Bush administration said Monday.

The decision represents a major victory for U.S. manufacturers, who had been pressing the administration to bring these cases on its own rather than waiting for the industry to petition the government for relief, a process that could take a longer period of time.

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

The Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (search), an interagency panel that includes officials from Commerce and other government agencies, voted Monday to launch investigations in three clothing categories: cotton knit shirts and blouses; cotton trousers; and underwear made of cotton and man-made fibers.

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

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

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

The government released preliminary data late Friday showing that shipments of knit shirts from China had increased by 1,258 percent in the first three months of this year, compared with last year, while shipments of cotton trousers were up by 1,521 percent.

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

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