The Carter administration, in a move that could heighten trade war tensions between the United States and the European Economic Community, threatened yesterday to "retaliate" against the EEC if quotas on American synthetic fibers entering the United Kingdom aren't lifted as scheduled.
U.S. Trade Ambassador Reubin O'd. Askew said the Administration is prepared to impose sharp increases in duities on $80 million in woolen apparel from the United Kingdom if the import quotas impose last February against the American goods aren't lifted as scheduled on Dec. 31.
"Our aim is to expand U.S. exports by the removal of the quotas rather than to restrict U.S. imports through higher duties," Askew said in a statement. "As I have said previously, however, we are fully prepared to retaliate against these quotas if need be."
The use of the word retaliate by Askew was called unusual by some government officials and was intended to send a strong signal to the EEC, they said. And the threat against British woolens was intended to affect "items of real interest to the United Kingdom," one U.S. official said. "We wanted to find items the British will notice."
The statement also was called political by some government officials and trade analysts.
"We're very surprised both by the presentation and the tone of" Askew's statement, said an EEC spokesman in Washington. He said the threat of action by Askew may not lead to a trade war, but "I think certanily a climate of irritations. Whether it will degenerate into a trade war I can say. But there seems to be a frequency of complaints from all sides, doesn't it."
The spokesman said he particularly was distrubed because over the weekend the United States and the EEC agreed to certain compensations on imports of U.S. chemicals to offset the effect of the quotas U.S. officials, however, said that those concessions weren't enough to equalize the effect of the EEC's quotas.
The EEC's Council of Minister's hasn't approved the agreement, but the EEC spokesman said he expects them to ratify it despite the Carter administration's threats.
The dispute started last February when the British claimed that U.S. shipments of yarns were injuring them and they asked the EEC to place quotas on those items, government officials said. On Feb. 20 the EEC imposed safeguard quotas restricting imports of polyester filament yarn to 9,083 tons and nylon carpet yarn to 7,500 tons from the United States to the United Kingdom.
Shipments of the filament yarn from the United States to the British amounted to 12,000 tons last year, up from 5,100 in 1978. Shipments of carpet yarn last year were 5,800 tons, up from 2,800 the previous year.
In addition, the EEC several months ago pressed antidumping charges against U.S. chemical companies, government officials said. Protectionist pressures continued as the U.S. Steel Corp. filed antidumping charges against steel producers in seven EEC countries last March.