US union workers are confident Barack Obama would restrict tyre imports from China, as a 15-day countdown began for the president to make his decision in the closely watched case.

“President Obama will have the opportunity to let American workers know he will stand with them when trade distorting practices from China threaten American jobs and our industries,” Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers Union said in a statement.

“We are confident the president shares our values of promoting a rising standard of living for the American worker. This trade case gives him the chance to put into practice his pledge to level the playing field and give all Americans a chance to share in the benefits of balanced trade,” he said.

Steelworkers endorsed Obama during last year’s presidential campaign.

Both opponents and supporters of restrictions have called the case a key test of Obama’s approach to trade in the face of conflicting pressures to protect jobs and promote free trade, Reuters noted.

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US tyre imports from China totalled about 46m in 2008, or triple the 15m in 2004.

Opponents said US tyre manufacturers like Bridgestone/Firestone, Goodyear, and Cooper made a decision years ago to get out of the low end tyre market that China supplies and had no intention of returning to it.

An lawyer for Chinese tyre producers told the news agency it would be “downright protectionist” for Obama to impose restrictions at a time when imports of the tyres have already dropped.

“Tyre imports have fallen 10% this year and not a single (US) tyre company supports this petition,” said David Spooner of Squire Sanders.

The Emergency Committee for American Trade, a US business group, has warned Obama risks “creating a downward protectionist spiral that will hurt millions of American workers” if he imposes import curbs.

An economic analysis done for US tyre wholesalers and retailers estimated the United States could lose 25,000 jobs if Obama restricts imports of the low-priced tyres, a figure the steelworkers said was exaggerated.

Proposals include a three-year programme of tariffs on a reducing sliding scale, starting at 55%.