By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel on Friday approved investigations that could lead to steep import duties on more than $1 billion of washing machines from South Korea and Mexico and more than $150 million of wind energy towers from China and Vietnam.
The U.S. International Trade Commission agreed there was reasonable evidence that imports from four countries were harming domestic producers. That allowed the U.S. Commerce Department to continue investigations already underway.
The trade panel also approved a third probe on steel wire garment hangers from Taiwan and Vietnam.
In each case, the Commerce Department will set preliminary duty levels in coming months. The ITC must vote its approval again for final duties to take force.
The wind tower case adds to a raft of U.S.-China trade frictions ahead of a visit by China's likely next leader, Vice President Xi Jinping, to Washington next week.
WHIRLPOOL IN A LATHER
Century-old American manufacturer Whirlpool has accused South Korean rivals Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics of selling washers in the United States at prices 31 percent to 82 percent below fair market value.
It also says washing machines imported from Mexico undercut U.S. prices by 27 percent to 72 percent.
South Korea's government has protested the probe, which follows a similar investigation requested by Whirlpool that already has led to U.S. duties on refrigerator imports from South Korea and Mexico involving the same manufacturers.
The ITC vote "validates the actions we've taken to protect the U.S. domestic appliance industry, our 23,000 U.S. employees and the communities in which they work," Whirlpool spokeswoman Kristine Vernier said in a statement.
LG said it would aggressively fight the case as it moves toward the final ITC vote later this year.
"LG looks forward to the opportunity to show why imports from LG, a leading innovator in the washer machine industry, have in no manner injured Whirlpool," said Chris Jung, president of the home appliance unit of LG Electronics USA.
U.S. washing machine imports from South Korea and Mexico were an estimated $659.1 million and $450.2 million, respectively, in 2010, according to the Commerce Department.
U.S.-CHINA CLEAN ENERGY TRADE FRICTION
Meanwhile, the Wind Tower Trade Coalition, a group of U.S. producers, alleges China undercuts U.S. wind tower prices by more than 200 percent and Vietnam undercuts U.S. prices by more than 140 percent.
The towers, used in large-scale wind farms, can stretch more than 100 meters (300 feet) in the air. They support the blades and housing for wind turbines.
China has warned the wind tower case, and a separate U.S. investigation targeting Chinese-made solar panels, could harm bilateral cooperation in the clean energy sector.
German manufacturing giant Siemens, which imports many wind towers from Asia, also opposes the duties.
"Domestic manufacturers have proved themselves unreliable and unwilling often to provide supply," Christopher Hauer, director of Siemens tower operations in the United States, told the ITC last month.
The United States imported an estimated $103.6 million and $51.9 million of the towers from China and Vietnam, respectively, in 2010.
Friday's vote came shortly after new data showed overall U.S. imports grew nearly 14 percent in 2011 to a record $2.66 billion. Periods of rapidly rising imports often lead to more trade cases being filed.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Neil Stempleman and Jackie Frank)