Public posturing in this year's China-United States textile tussle might suggest trade relations are being worn threadbare. In fact, the two economies are more closely knit than ever before. As the trade relationship deepens, future run-ins will become more frequent - and increasingly civil. 'There's further to go and everyone should expect in the future that there will be continuing discussions, if not arguments, over these issues,' said Mickey Kantor, who served as US trade representative and secretary of commerce during the Clinton administration. 'The bigger the trade relationship between any two countries, the more trade disputes you are going to have.' Sino-US trade came to US$231 billion last year. In the first quarter, the mainland accounted for 10.1 per cent of the US's foreign trade, making it the third-largest trading partner behind Mexico, at 11.2 per cent, and Canada at 19.8 per cent. At the same time, China continues to phase in commitments under its WTO agreement, which give a structure to relations that was previously absent. As a result, chances of a bilateral trade war over the textiles spat are slim. Moreover, as textiles account for a relatively small part of overall trade and any temporary quotas will expire within three years, they will likely be upstaged by copyright protection and currency issues as the focus of future disputes. The last time China and the US squared off, in the mid-1990s, bilateral trade was 25 per cent of its present level and there were fewer tools for settling disputes. Talk of trade sanctions often resulted in ugly rhetoric. A US decision in 1994 to limit Chinese textile imports was slammed as 'unreasonable, flimsy and in total ignorance of international and bilateral agreements' by Beijing trade official Li Zhongzhou. 'We cannot help doubting the sincerity of the US.' Similar doubts may linger today, but if so, both sides have learned to keep quiet. While expressing 'strong dissatisfaction' at what he saw as 'protectionism', Commerce Minister Bo Xilai last week offered a measured reaction to new US and European quotas on mainland textile imports. China would 'address the issue in a rational manner' in accordance with the WTO agreement, he said. 'What we have seen in China in terms of protecting intellectual property rights or adhering to WTO commitments or building a rules-based trading system has been nothing short of a revolution, not a devolution,' said Mr Kantor, now a lawyer with Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw in Washington. Resolving the textiles dispute involves significant political hurdles, but economically the stakes are relatively small. At US$5.6 billion in the first quarter, China's trade in clothing, yarns and fabrics with the US accounted for only 9 per cent of bilateral trade. '[Textiles] are not very important,' said Jonathan Anderson, chief Asia economist at investment bank UBS. 'China ships a lot of clothes to the US but the real export growth is in other sectors.' More likely, future trade action against Chinese imports will be affected by domestic US politics. A standoff is brewing in Congress over passage of the White House-backed Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta), and opponents may withhold support unless more is done to address the increasing problems with US-China economic ties. 'The Congress is somewhat holding [Cafta] hostage because of trade problems with China,' Mr Kantor said. Many of those trade problems are addressed under China's WTO agreement. But enforcement often meets with opposition, as demonstrated by the safeguard quotas. In other areas, like copyright protection, compliance seems perennially elusive. Mainland piracy levels for movies, for example, have ranged between 85 and 100 per cent for a decade, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Despite WTO commitments and occasional high-profile crackdowns, Beijing has been unsuccessful at stemming the tide. 'The mountain we are climbing is high,' said Mike Ellis, the director of MPAA in Asia. In a new twist, last year Chinese films made more money in the US than US films did in China. While the US is a free market, Beijing caps legitimate foreign releases to 20 a year. Mr Ellis calls this 'wildly unfair'. 'The WTO agreement is not the silver slipper that fits perfectly on every foot. It's open to interpretation,' said one western diplomat based in the mainland. 'The Chinese would argue that the interpretation for China as a developing country should be relatively generous. We would argue that China, as a major trading power, especially one with a growing trade surplus, needs to adhere to the stricter definitions.'