CHINA'S exports of footwear to the United States are soaring, giving it nearly half the US market in non-rubber shoes. US imports of footwear from China rose 28 per cent in the first half of this year and accounted for almost 300 million pairs worth a massive US$1.7 billion. Figures from the US International Trade Commission showed the country's total imports of non-rubber footwear leapt by 18 per cent in the second quarter - the largest quarterly rise since 1986. China's share of the US market now stands at 49 per cent - a figure likely to strengthen the hand of American critics of the US trade imbalance with the mainland. The latest trade figures were requested by the Senate's powerful Finance Committee, which among other things monitors the country's trade deficits. During past debates on China's Most Favoured Nation trading status, congressmen opposed to its extension alleged that some of China's footwear exports were linked to forced prison labour. Homemade shoes accounted for only 12 per cent of the non-rubber footwear market in the US. The dwindling performance of US manufacturers has seen employment in the industry drop by four per cent this year - another source of unease in political circles. China's impressive gains have largely been at the expense of Taiwan and South Korea, which used to dominate the market. The two countries' combined exports to the US this year have slumped by 40 per cent, down to 52 million pairs worth $632 million.