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Assessment of the National seeurity Risl<s Fosed fo ttrre united States as a Result of the U.S. Fedenal llebt Owed to China as a Creditor of the [J.S" Governmemt
Office of the Secretary of Defense
Preparation of this reporUstudy cost the Department of Defense a total of approximately $4,500 for the 2012 Fiscal YearGenerated on 2012Jun06 1725 ReflD: 5B3A274F
The Conference Report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal year 2012 (House Report lI2-329,pages 742-3) requests that the Secretary of Defense "provide an assessment of the national security risks posed to the United States as a result of the United States federal debt owed to China as a creditor of the United States Government and the implications of that debt for the United States military. The assessment shall include a description of the United States federal debt liabilities owed to China as a cred.itor of the United States and a discussion of any options available to China for detening United States military freedom of action in the westem Pacific as a result of this debt.,' U.S. FEDERAL DEBT LIABILITIES OWED TO CHINA AS A CREDITOR OF THE UNITED STATES
The Treasury International Capital System repofis data on foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury securities. At the end of March2012, total foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury securities Uy bnina were $1.170 trillion, or 7.5 percent of total pubiic debt. All but $3.9 billion tf Chiou', holdings were long-term (maturing in more than a year),
WHY DOES CHINA HOLD U.S. TREASURY SECURITIES?
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Available in quantity in both domestic and international financial markets, IJ.S. Treasury bills, notes, and bonds (henceforth "Treasudes") are the prefened instruments for many large-scale sovereign and private investors seeking a safe and Iiquid harbor for their holdings. As such, U.S. Treasuries are an attractive investment vehicle for China, which has significant foreign exchange holdings.
Over the past decade, China has consistently run substantial net trade and cunent income sutpluses with the rest of the world, and also has typically been the recipient of large net capital inflows, such as from foreign direct investment. At the same time, China has closely managed the value of its exchange rate against the U.S. dol1ar, including pegging the value of its cunincy against the dollar rurtil July 2005, and again from mid-2008 until June 2010. When firms, institutions, and individuals in China exchange their foreign curency, such as U.S. dollars, for Chinese cuffency (the "renminbi," or RMB), this demand for RMB creates market pressure for the value of the RMB to rise. As a result, the net inflows of foreign currency into China's economy from its trade and capital surpluses with the rest of the world put market pressure on China's exchange rate for its currency to appreciate. Llnder these circumstances, if China wants to limit the RMB's appreciation against the U.S. dollar, the People's Bank of China (PBOC), China's central bank, must intervene in the currency market in China and be willing to purchase U.S. dollars in whatever amounts necessary to keep the RMB from rising beyond what the PBOC and the Chinese Government are willingto accept. Due to this foreign exchange market intervention, much of the large net inflow of U.S, dollars and other foreign exchange into China over the past decade has been absorbed by the PBOC, becoming part of China's official foreign exchange reserr/es. As a result, the PBOC's official foreign exchange resewes totaled more than $3.3 trillion as of the end of March 2012. If
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Chinese authorities were to try to sell their holdings of foreign exchange resewes in any quantity, the immediate consequence would be a substantial appreciation of the RMB, as demand for RIVIB would exceed the available supply. Thus, China cannot reduce its holdings of foreign exchange reseryes without giving up its objective of limiting RMB appreciation, a policy ihe United States has long urged China to abandon.
Like other central banks, the PBOC, in order to eam at least a modest retum as well as preserving the real value of principie, invests in a variety of assets, including U.S. Treasuries, rather than simply hold reserves as cash. China's other investment options could include altematives such as converling its dollars into other currencies and purchasing securities in that currency, investing in asset-backed securities or equity markets, or purchasing physical assets such as gold. These other investments may attimes offer higher retums, but also carry gteater risk than U,S. Treasuries, so China, like other large reserve managers, likely has chosen to include a heavy weight on safe, liquid and stable assets such as U.S. Treasuries as the core of a
diversified mix of assets.
OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO CHINA
Occasional commentary reported in China's media advocates selling U.S. Treasury securities in '."-"'"in"-Uu1[otit Wb-eftiy""milgarti€;-a-efir"no6o'lengue"ge'Fu'blieation'of-eh'ina'sotTiCief'Xififiud'news agency, People's Liberation Army academic advisors Major General Luo Yuan, Major General Zhu Chenghu and Senior Colonel Ke Chun.riao called on China to "dump" U.S. Treasuries as punishment for the Obama Administration's notification to Congress that it would provide a package of arms to Taiwan. Mr. Ding Gang, a senior editor with China's People's Daily, wrote in an editorial in August 2011 that China should directly link the amount of U.S. Treasury hcldings with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, stating that "now is the time for China to use its 'financial weapcn' to teach the United States a lesson if it moves forward with a plan to sale (sic)
arms to Taiwan," response to lJ,S, policies with which China disagrees. In a February 8, 2010 interview published
There is no evidence that Chinese authorities have acted on these recommendations; on the contrary, China has continued purchasing large quantities of U.S. Treasury securities. Officials at China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which manages China's ofhcial foreign exchange reserves, have repeatedly stated that they base the operation and management of foreign exchange reserves on the principies of safety, liquidity, and potential revenue.l '\)Ve have no indication that, over the last two decades, China has changed materially its holdings of international reserves in response to stress in the U.S.-China relationship. The market for U.S. Treasuries is the deepest and most iiquid in the world. It maintains a diverse pool of investors, both domestic and foreign, and is not dependent on any single investor. China's holdings of U,S. Treasury securities at the end of March 20L2were 11 percent of federal debt held by the public, 7.5 percent of total public debt, and only slightly more than2 percent of total U.S. credit market debt estimated by the Federal Reserve's Flou' of Funds data. As these figures indicate, the ability of China to affect the market for Il.S. Treasuries, and U.S. financial markets more broadly, is limited.
for example, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2012-03/12lcontent
Should China decide to reduce its holdings of U.S. Treasuries suddenly and significantly, this could cause short-term disruptions in the secondary market, and lead to an inciease in the interest rate required by the market for debt issued by the Treasury Department. This dramatic option, howevet, also would impose significant costs on China. By abruptly attempting to sell o?f 1*g. quantities of I.I.S. Treasuries, China would dramatically increase the supply of U.S. Treasuries on the secondary market, and the value of U.S. Treasuries on the secondary market could fall sharply. If this occutred, China's own holdings of U.S. Treasuries would fall in value, causing direct financial losses for China. In addition, if it determined it necessary to achieve its inflation and employment mandates, the Federal Reserve is fully capable of purchasing U.S. Treaswies dumped on the market by China, reducing the economic impact to the United States, Finally, as well as undermining the value of its own holdings, a policy decision by China to reduce suddenly and significantly its holdings of U,S, Treasuries would fundamentally change the international finance and business community's perception of China as a reliable and respected economic and financiai partner.
Aside from the aggressive option of a large-scale sell-off China has other options that are less provocative and would have even less effect on the United States, but are equally problematic for China itself. China could annource a decision not to purchase U.S. securities in the future, which could result in some mild upward pressure on interest rates for new issuances of U.S.
adapt quickly, and it would not affect the U,S, Treasury's ability to issue debt, The reputational ccst to China for pursuing this type of antagonistic economic approach to one of its major trading partners could also he significant. Even if Chinawere to choose to sell off existing holdings or renounco future purchases of U.S. Treasuries, it would face the difficult predicament of finding alternate investments in which to put the doliars accumulated from its currency intervention in the context of significant trade and capital surpluses. China could attempt to diversi$i holdings significantly into a basket of developed aountry debt, but no other market offers the same levels of depth, liquidity, and safety as the market for U.S. Treasuries. Investing in developing country debt offers the potential of higher teturns, but al much higher risk with very limited liquidity and volume. Ultimately, China has few attractive options for investing the bulk of its large foreign exchange holdings outside of U. S. Treasury securities.
ASSESSMENT OF'NATIONAL SECURITY RISKS POSED TO THE UNITED STATES
As described above, attempting to use U.S. Treasury securities as a coercive tool would have limited effect and likely would do more harm to China than to the United States. As the threat is not credible and the effect would be limited even if carried out, it does not offer China deterrence options, whether in the diplomatic, military, or economic realms, and this would remain true both in peacetime and in scenarios of crisis or war. Moreover, in times of military crisis or war, the threshold for what might deter the United States also rises. During his confirmation hearing in May 2011 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, in response to a question on the issue, stated
that China's holdings of U.S. Treasurl' securities did not
"in any way influence U.S, foreign