U.S. Debt to China: How Much Does It Own?

Exactly How Much U.S. Debt Does China Own? And Why?

u.s. debt to china
China owns so much U.S. debt to improve its competitiveness in global trade. Photo: Thomas Kuhlenbeck/Getty Images

The U.S. debt to China is $1.059 trillion, as of February 2017. That's 27.8 percent of the $3.8 trillion in Treasury bills, notes, and bonds held by foreign countries. The rest of the $19.9 trillion national debt is owned by either the American people or by the U.S. government itself. For more, see Who Owns the U.S. National Debt?

China holds less than the $1.1 trillion held by Japan. Both countries have reduced their holdings in the past year, but China has reduced it faster.

China held $1.3 trillion in U.S. debt in November 2013. The reason China is reducing its holdings is to allow its currency, the yuan, to rise. To do that, China has to loosen its peg to the dollar. That makes the yuan more attractive to forex traders in global markets.

Long-term, China wants the yuan to replace the U.S. dollar as the world's global currency. China is also responding to accusations of manipulation. For more, see Currency Wars.

Before February 2014, China had been strengthening the yuan in response to U.S. pressure. ThenBut it reversed course when the dollar rose 25 percent in 2014 and 2015, dragging the yuan with it. China needed to lower the yuan to remain competitive with other emerging markets with free-floating currencies. For more, see Asset Bubble and Yuan to Dollar Conversion.

China has consistently held more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt every year since 2010. That's when the Treasury Department changed how it measures the debt.

Before July 2010, Treasury reports show China held $843 billion in debt. This makes it difficult to make long-term comparisons. (Source: "Major Holdings of U.S. Treasury Securities," Department of the U.S. Treasury, September 6, 2016.)

How Did China Become One of America's Biggest Bankers?

China is more than happy to own almost a third of the U.S. debt.

Owning U.S. Treasury notes helps China's economy grow by keeping its currency weaker than the dollar. It keeps Chinese exports cheaper than U.S. products. China's highest priority is creating enough jobs for its 1.4 billion people.

The United States allowed China to become one of its biggest bankers because the American people enjoy low consumer prices. Selling debt to China funds federal government programs that allow the U.S. economy to grow. It also keeps U.S. interest rates low. But China's ownership of the U.S. debt is shifting the economic balance of power in its favor.

Why Does China Own So Much U.S. Debt?

China makes sure the yuan is always lower than the U.S. dollar. Why? Part of its economic strategy is to keep its export prices competitive. It does this by holding the yuan at a fixed rate compared to a "currency basket" of which the majority is the dollar. When the dollar falls in value, the Chinese government uses dollars it has on hand to buy Treasuries. It receives these dollars from Chinese companies that receive them as payments for their exports. China's Treasury purchases increases demand for the dollar and thus its value.

Also, China promises to redeem dollars for yuan at the fixed rate.

It must keep a good supply of Treasury notes in reserve to do that.

China's position as America's largest banker gives it some political leverage. Now and then, China threatens to sell part of its debt holdings. It knows that if it did so, U.S. interest rates would rise. That would slow U.S economic growth. China often calls for a new global currency to replace the dollar, which is used in most international transactions. China does this whenever the United States allows the value of the dollar to drop. That makes the debt China holds less valuable.

What Would Happen If China Called in Its Debt Holdings?

China would not call in its debt all at once. If it did so, the demand for the dollar would plummet like a rock. This dollar collapse would disrupt international markets even more than the 2008 financial crisis.

China's economy would suffer along with everyone else's.

It's more likely that China would slowly begin selling off its Treasury holdings. Even when it just warns that it plans to do so, dollar demand starts to drop. That hurts China's competitiveness. As it raises its export prices, U.S. consumers would buy American products instead. China could only start this process if it further expands its exports to other Asian countries and increases domestic demand. 

China's Debt-Holder Strategy Is Working

China's low-cost competitive strategy worked. Its economy grew 10 percent annually for the three decades before the recession. Now it's growing at 7 percent, a more sustainable rate. China has become the largest economy in the world. It's outpaced the United States and the European Union. China also became the world's biggest exporter in 2010. China needs this growth to raise its low standard of living. Despite its threats, China will continue to be the world's largest holder of U.S. debt.