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US prepares orders blocking cotton, tomato imports from China’s Xinjiang over forced labour

US Customs and Border Protection 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 labor, although a formal announcement has been delayed.

The Trump administration 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 cotton and tomato bans along with five other import bans over alleged Xinjiang forced-labor abuses would be an unprecedented move by CBP and likely stoke tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

The “Withhold Release Orders” allow the CBP to detain shipments based on suspicion of forced-labor involvement under long-standing U.S. laws aimed at combating human trafficking, child labor 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 centers 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 labor in supply chains related to cotton textiles and tomatoes coming out of Xinjiang,” 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 organizations, she said.

The bans could have far-reaching effects for US retailers and apparel producers, as well as food manufacturers. China produces about 20% 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.