Why China Buys U.S. Debt With Treasury Bonds (2024)

China has steadily accumulated U.S. Treasury securities over the last few decades. In January 2024, the Asian nation owned $797.7 billion in Treasuries, roughly 10% of the U.S. national debt. U.S. debt to China comes mainly in the form of U.S. Treasury securities (bonds issued by the federal government).

Some analysts and investors fear China could dump these Treasuries in retaliation and that this weaponization of its holdings would send interest rates higher, potentially hurting economic growth. The amount of Treasuries China holds has been decreasing since 2017. This article discusses the business behind China buying U.S. debt.

Key Takeaways

  • China invests heavily in U.S. Treasury bonds to keep its export prices lower.
  • China focuses on export-led growth to help generate jobs.
  • To keep its export prices low, China must keep the renminbi low compared to the U.S. dollar.
  • U.S. debt to China comes in the form of U.S. Treasuries, largely due to their safety and stability.
  • Although there are worries about China selling off U.S. debt, which would hamper economic growth, doing so in large amounts poses risks for China as well, making it unlikely to happen.

Chinese Economics

China is primarily a manufacturing hub and anexport-driven economy. Trade datafrom theU.S. Census Bureaushows that China has been running a big trade surplus with the U.S. since 1985. This means that China sells more goods and services to the U.S. than the U.S. sells to China.

Chinese exporters receive U.S. dollars (USD) for their goods sold to theU.S., but they need renminbi (RMBor yuan) to pay their workers and storemoney locally. They sell the dollars they receive through exports to get RMB, which increases the USD supply and raises the demand for RMB.

China's central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), actively intervenes to prevent this imbalance between the U.S. dollar and yuan in local markets. It buys the available excess U.S. dollars from the exporters and gives them the required yuan.

The PBOC can print yuan as needed. Effectively, this intervention by thePBOC creates ascarcity of U.S. dollars, which keeps the USD rates higher. China hence accumulates USD as forex reserves.

Self-Correcting Currency Flow

International trading which involves two currencies has a self-correcting mechanism. Assume Australia is running a current account deficit, which means the country is importing more than it is exporting.

The other countries that are sending goods to Australia are getting paid Australian dollars (AUD), so there is a huge supply of AUD in the international market, leading the AUD to depreciate against other currencies.

However, this decline in AUD will make Australian exports cheaper and imports costlier. Gradually, Australia will start exporting more and importing less, due to its lower-valued currency. This will ultimately reverse the initial scenario. This is the self-correcting mechanism that occurs in the international trade and forex markets regularly, with little or no intervention from any authority.

China's Need for a Weak Renminbi

China’s strategy is to maintain export-led growth, which aids in generating jobs and enables it, through such continued growth,to keep its large population productively engaged. Since this strategy is dependent on exports, China requires RMB to continue to have a lower currency than theUSD, and thus offer cheaper prices.

If the PBOC stops interfering—in the previously described manner—the RMB would self-correct and appreciate, thus making Chinese exports costlier. It would lead to a major crisis of unemployment due to the loss of export business.

China wants to keep its goods competitive in the international markets, and that cannot happen if the RMB appreciates. It thus keeps the RMB low compared to the USD using the mechanism that's been described. However, this leads to a huge pileup of USD as forex reserves for China.

PBOC Strategy and Chinese Inflation

Though other labor-intensive, export-driven countries like India carry out similar measures, they do so only to a limited extent. One of the major challengesresulting fromthe approach that's been outlined is that it leads to high inflation.

China has tight, state-dominated control over its economy and can manage inflation through other measures like subsidies and price controls.Other countries don’t have such a high level of control and have to give in to the market pressures of a free or partially freeeconomy.

China's Use of USDReserves

China's central bank had approximately $3.22 trillion in total foreign exchange reserves as of February 2024. Likethe U.S., it also exports to other regions like Europe. Theeuro forms the second biggest tranche of Chinese forex reserves.

China needs to invest in such huge stockpiles to earn at least the risk-free rate. With trillions of U.S. dollars, China has foundthe U.S. Treasury securities tooffer the safest investment destination for Chinese forex reserves. With euro stockpiles, China canconsider investing in European debt. Possibly, even U.S. dollar stockpiles can be invested to obtain comparatively better returns from euro debt.

China acknowledges that the stability and safety of investment take priority over everything else. Thoughtheeurozone has been in existence for about two decades now, it remains unstable.

It is not even certain whether theEurozone (and Euro) will continue to exist in the mid-to-long term. Anasset swap (U.S. debt to Euro debt) is thus not recommended, especially in cases where the other asset is considered riskier.

Other asset classes like realestate, stocks, and other countries'treasuries are far riskier compared to U.S. debt. Forex reserve money is not spare cash to be gambled away in risky securities for want of higher returns.

Another option for China is to use the dollars elsewhere. For example, the dollars can be used to pay Middle East countries for oil supplies. However, those countries too will need to invest the dollars they receive. Effectively, owing to the acceptance of the dollar as the international trade currency, any dollar supply eventually resides in theforex reserve of a nationor the safest investment—U.S. Treasury securities.

One more reason for China to continuously buy U.S. Treasuries is the gigantic size of the U.S. trade deficit with China. The monthly deficit in December 2023 was around $22.08billion, and with that large amount of money involved, Treasuries are probably the best available option for China. Buying U.S. Treasuries enhances China's money supply and creditworthiness. Selling or swappingsuch Treasurieswould reverse these advantages.

Impact of China Buying U.S. Debt

U.S. debt offers the safest haven for Chinese forex reserves, which effectively means that China offers loans to theU.S. so thatthe U.S. can keep buying the goods China produces.

Hence, as long as China continues to have an export-driven economy with ahuge trade surplus with the U.S., it will keep piling up U.S. dollars and U.S. debt.Chinese loans to the U.S., through the purchase of U.S. debt, enable the U.S. to buy Chinese products.

It’s a win-win situation for both nations,with both benefiting mutually. China has a huge market for its products, and the U.S. benefits from the economic prices of Chinese goods. Beyond their well-known political rivalry,both nations (willingly or unwillingly) are lockedin a stateofinter-dependency that will continue and from which both benefit.

The U.S. national debt as of April 1, 2024, stands at about $34.63 trillion.

USD As a Reserve Currency

Effectively, China is buying the present-day reserve currency. Until the 19thcentury, gold was the global standard for reserves. It wasreplaced by the British pound sterling. Today, U.S. Treasuries are considered virtuallythe safest.

Apart from the long history of the use of gold by multiple nations, history also provides instances where many countries had huge reserves of British pounds sterling (GBP) in the post-World War II era. These countries did not intend to spend their GBP reserves or to invest in the U.K. but were retaining the pound sterling purely as safe reserves.

When those reserves were sold off, however, the U.K. faced a currency crisis. Its economy deteriorated due to theexcess supplyof itscurrency,leading to high interest rates. Will the same happen to the U.S. if China decides to offload its U.S. debt holdings?

It's worth noting thattheprevailing economic system after the WW-II era required the U.K. to maintain a fixed exchange rate. Due to those restraints and the absence of a flexible exchange rate system, the selling off of the GBP reserves by other countries caused severe economic consequences for the U.K.

Since the U.S. dollar has a variable exchange rate, however, any sale by any nation holding huge U.S. debt or dollar reserves will trigger the adjustment of the trade balance at the international level. The offloaded U.S. reserves by China will either end up with another nation or will return back to the U.S.


The repercussions for China of such an offloading would be worse. An excess supply of U.S. dollars would lead to a decline in USDrates, making RMB valuations higher. It would increase the cost of Chinese products, making them lose their competitive price advantage. China may not be willing to do that, as it makes little economic sense.

If China (or any other nation that has atrade surplus with theU.S.) stops buying U.S. Treasuries or even starts dumping itsU.S. forex reserves, its trade surplus would become a trade deficit—something which no export-oriented economy would want, as they would be worse off as a result.

The ongoing worries about China'sholding of U.S. Treasuries or the fear of Beijing dumping them are uncalled for. Even if such a thing were to happen, the dollars and debt securities would not vanish. They would reach other vaults.

U.S. Debt to China: Risk Perspective for America

Although this ongoing activityhas led to China becoming a creditor to the U.S., the situation for the U.S. may not be that bad. Considering the consequences that China would suffer from selling off its U.S. reserves, China (or any other nation) will likely refrain from such actions.

Even ifChina were to proceed withthe selling of these reserves, theU.S., being a free economy, can print any amount of dollars as needed. It can also take other measures like quantitative easing (QE).

Although printing dollars would reducethe value of its currency, thereby increasinginflation, it would work in favor of U.S. debt. Real repayment value will fall proportionately to inflation—something good for the debtor (U.S.), but bad forthe creditor (China).

Even though the U.S. budget deficit has been rising, the risk of the U.S. defaulting on its debt practically remains nil (unless a political decision to do so is made). Effectively, the U.S. may not need Chinato continuously purchase itsdebt; rather China needs the U.S. more,toensure itscontinued economic prosperity.

U.S. Debt to China: Risk Perspective for China

China, on the other hand, needs to be concerned about loaning money to a nation that also has the limitless authority to print it in any amount. High inflation in theU.S. would have adverse effects on China, as the real repayment value to Chinawould be reduced in thecase of high inflation in the U.S.

Willingly or unwillingly, China will have to continue to purchase U.S. debt to ensure price competitiveness for its exports at theinternational level.

Is China Increasing or Decreasing Its U.S. Treasuries Holdings?

China's holdings of U.S. Treasuries peaked between 2012 and 2013, with a value of over $1.3 trillion. Since then, its size has been slowly declining. It dipped below $1 trillion in mid-2022 for the first time since 2010. As of January 2024, it stands at $797.7 billion.

Is China the Largest Foreign Holder of U.S. Debt?

No, China is currently the second-largest holder of U.S. Treasuries, behind Japan, which holds around $1.15 trillion as of January 2024.

Why Does China Buy U.S. Treasuries?

There are several reasons why China buys U.S. Treasuries. These instruments are among the world's safest assets, making them secure and stable and the U.S. dollar remains the world's reserve currency in international trade This allows the Chinese central bank to effectively hold dollar-denominated assets.

But the most important reason is that China receives a surplus of U.S. dollars due to the trade imbalance between the two countries, as China exports more to the U.S. than it imports. But, Chinese companies and their workers need to be paid in China's local currency. This means the Chinese banking system must convert dollars with the central bank, which must then do something with them. The central bank uses these dollars to purchase Treasuries, which earn a stable return.

What Would Happen If China Sold All of Its Treasuries?

It is unlikely that China would sell its U.S. Treasuries all at once because this would be economically painful for China and leave it holding dollars that it would need to spend or invest elsewhere.

The most immediate effect would be an increase in interest rates on Treasuries since selling so many at once would artificially depress their prices in the bond market; thus increasing their yields. If the Fed were not to react at all to such an event, it is estimated that it would increase long-term Treasury yields by 30 to 60 basis points.

The Bottom Line

Geopoliticalrealities and economic dependencies often lead to interesting situationsin theglobal arena. China's continuous purchase of U.S. debt is one such interesting scenario. It continues to raise concerns aboutthe U.S. becoming a net debtor nation, susceptible to the demands of a creditor nation. The reality, however, is not as bleak as it may seem, for this type of economic arrangement is actually a win-win for both nations.

Why China Buys U.S. Debt With Treasury Bonds (2024)


Why China Buys U.S. Debt With Treasury Bonds? ›

China invests heavily in U.S. Treasury bonds to keep its export prices lower. China focuses on export-led growth to help generate jobs. To keep its export prices low, China must keep the renminbi low compared to the U.S. dollar.

Why does China buy US debt with Treasury bonds? ›

From a national perspective, China buys U.S. debt due to its complex financial system. The central bank must purchase U.S. Treasuries and other foreign assets to keep cash inflows from causing inflation.

How much does China have invested in US Treasury bonds? ›

The latest figures show China held $782 billion of Treasuries in November - a large amount, but also around its smallest in 15 years and down significantly from the peaks of $1.3 trillion in 2011 and 2013. More importantly, China's footprint in the U.S. bond market is a fraction of what it once was.

Who is the largest holder of US Treasury bonds? ›

Japan remains the largest non-U.S. holder of U.S. government debt. China's holdings of Treasuries rose to $816.3 billion, up $34.3 billion from $782 billion held in November. China's load of Treasuries rose for a second straight month. Before that, China's Treasury holdings had declined for seven straight months.

What is the biggest advantage of a US Treasury bond? ›

Pros of Investing in Treasury Bonds

Tax benefits: The interest income from Treasury bonds is subject to federal income tax but exempt from state and local income taxes. This can be particularly beneficial for investors in high-income tax states, as it allows them to avoid additional taxation on their interest income.

What would happen if China sold U.S. treasury bonds? ›

A sizeable sell-off of Treasury securities by China would almost certainly lead to an appreciation of China's currency and depreciation of the dollar. This is more likely to help the United States than to hurt us, contrary to the claims of many observers.

What country owns the most U.S. debt? ›

  1. Japan. Japan held $1.15 trillion in Treasury securities as of January 2024, beating out China as the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. ...
  2. China. China gets a lot of attention for holding a big chunk of the U.S. government's debt. ...
  3. The United Kingdom. ...
  4. Luxembourg. ...
  5. Canada.

What happens if China calls in U.S. debt? ›

Consequences of Owing Debt to the Chinese

If China called in all of its U.S. holdings, the U.S. dollar would depreciate, whereas the yuan would appreciate, making Chinese goods more expensive.

Who owns most of China's debt? ›

[2] A report by the credit rating agency S&P Global in 2022 estimated that 79 per cent of corporate debt in China was owed by SOEs (the IMF does not break down the proportion of debt owed by SOEs).

How much does China owe the United States? ›

The United States pays interest on approximately $850 billion in debt held by the People's Republic of China. China, however, is currently in default on its sovereign debt held by American bondholders.

Is China dumping US Treasuries? ›

Beijing, vigilant in the protection of its overseas assets, has slashed its holdings of US Treasury bills by 25 per cent since early 2021 to the tune of US$280 billion. Its position hit a 14-year low of US$769.6 billion in October 2023, a decline commonly attributed to a conscious effort to diversify its holdings.

How much does Japan owe the US? ›

In total, other territories hold about $7.4 trillion in U.S. debt. Japan owns the most at $1.1 trillion, followed by China, with $859 billion, and the United Kingdom at $668 billion.

How much U.S. debt does Russia hold? ›

Russia does not hold any significant amount of debt or loans from the United States government.

What is the advantage of US Treasury bonds? ›

Treasury bonds pay a fixed rate of interest, which can provide a steady income stream. As a result, bonds can offer investors a steady return that can help offset potential losses from other investments in their portfolio, such as equities.

Why would anyone buy a US Treasury bond? ›

Relative to higher-risk securities, like stocks, Treasury bonds have lower returns. Yet even during periods of low yields, U.S. Treasury bonds remain sought-after because of their perceived stability and liquidity, or ease of conversion into cash. NerdWallet's ratings are determined by our editorial team.

Who buys the most US Treasury bonds? ›

Nearly half of all US foreign-owned debt comes from five countries. All values are adjusted to 2023 dollars. As of January 2023, the five countries owning the most US debt are Japan ($1.1 trillion), China ($859 billion), the United Kingdom ($668 billion), Belgium ($331 billion), and Luxembourg ($318 billion).

How much U.S. Treasury debt does China own? ›

Foreign holders of United States treasury debt

Of the total held by foreign countries, Japan and Mainland China held the greatest portions, with China holding 797.7 billion U.S. dollars in U.S. securities. Other foreign holders included oil exporting countries and Caribbean banking centers.

Which country buys the most U.S. Treasury bonds? ›

Top Foreign Holders of U.S. Debt
RankCountryShare of Total
1🇯🇵 Japan14.7%
2🇨🇳 China11.9%
3🇬🇧 United Kingdom8.9%
4🇧🇪 Belgium4.8%
35 more rows
Mar 24, 2023

Why not buy U.S. Treasury bonds? ›

So, the risks to investing in T-bonds are opportunity risks. That is, the investor might have gotten a better return elsewhere, and only time will tell. The dangers lie in three areas: inflation, interest rate risk, and opportunity costs.

Who is buying U.S. treasury bonds? ›

With global central banks not as active, auctions are increasingly dependent on private buyers who are more price-sensitive than central banks. Household investors and mutual funds have both been increasing their ownership in Treasuries and will likely need to keep increasing shares to keep up with expected supply.

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