How China Overtook the U.S. as the World’s Major Trading Partner
How China Overtook the U.S. As the World’s Trade Partner
In 2018, trade accounted for 59% of global GDP, up nearly 1.5 times since 1980.
Over this timeframe, international trade has transformed significantly—not just in terms of volume and composition, but also in terms of the countries that the rest of the world leans on for their most important trade relationships.
Now, a critical shift is occurring in the landscape, and it may surprise you to learn that China has already usurped the U.S. as the world’s most dominant trading partner.
Trading Places: A Global Shift
Today’s animation comes from the Lowy Institute, and it pulls data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) database on bilateral trade flows, to determine whether the U.S. or China is a bigger trading partner for each country from 1980 to 2018.
The results are stark: before 2000, the U.S. was at the helm of global trade, as over 80% of countries traded with the U.S. more than they did with China. By 2018, that number had dropped sharply to just 30%, as China swiftly took top position in 128 of 190 countries.
The researchers pinpoint China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization as a major turning point in China’s international trade relationships. The dramatic shift that followed is clearly demonstrated in the visualization above—between 2005 and 2010, a number of countries tipped towards Chinese influence, especially in Africa and Asia.
Over time, China’s dominance has grown dramatically. It’s no wonder then, that China and the U.S. have a contentious trade relationship themselves, as both nations battle it out for first place.
A Tale of Two Economies
The United States and China are competitors in many ways, but to be successful they must rely on each other for mutually beneficial trade. However, it’s also the major issue on which they are struggling to reach a common ground.
The U.S. has been vocal about negotiating more balanced trade agreements with China. In fact, a mid-2018 poll shows that 62% of Americans consider their trade relationship with China to be unfair.
Since 2018, both parties have faced a fraught relationship, imposing major tariffs on consumer and industrial goods—and retaliations are reaching greater and greater heights:
While a delicate truce has been reached at the moment, the trade war has caused a significant drag on global growth, and the World Bank estimates it will continue to have an effect into 2021.
At the same time, China’s sphere of influence continues to grow.
One Belt, One Road, One Trade Direction?
China seems to have a finger in every pie. The nation is financing a flurry of megaprojects across Asia and Africa—but one broader initiative stands above the rest.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Initiative, planned for a 2049 completion, is advancing at a furious pace. In 2019 alone, Chinese companies signed contracts worth up to $128 billion to start Chinese large-scale infrastructure projects in various countries.
While building new highways and ports abroad is beneficial for Chinese financiers, OBOR is also about creating new markets and trade routes for Chinese goods in Asia. Recent research found that the OBOR program’s infrastructure expansion and logistics performance improvements led to positive effects on China’s exports.
Nevertheless, it’s clear the new infrastructure network is already transforming global trade, possibly cementing China’s position as the world’s major trading partner for years to come.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt?
Foreign investors hold $7.3 trillion of the national U.S. debt. These holdings declined 6% in 2022 amid a strong U.S. dollar and rising rates.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt in 2022?
Today, America owes foreign investors of its national debt $7.3 trillion.
These are in the form of Treasury securities, some of the most liquid assets worldwide. Central banks use them for foreign exchange reserves and private investors flock to them during flights to safety thanks to their perceived low default risk.
Beyond these reasons, foreign investors may buy Treasuries as a store of value. They are often used as collateral during certain international trade transactions, or countries can use them to help manage exchange rate policy. For example, countries may buy Treasuries to protect their currency’s exchange rate from speculation.
In the above graphic, we show the foreign holders of the U.S. national debt using data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Top Foreign Holders of U.S. Debt
With $1.1 trillion in Treasury holdings, Japan is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Japan surpassed China as the top holder in 2019 as China shed over $250 billion, or 30% of its holdings in four years.
This bond offloading by China is the one way the country can manage the yuan’s exchange rate. This is because if it sells dollars, it can buy the yuan when the currency falls. At the same time, China doesn’t solely use the dollar to manage its currency—it now uses a basket of currencies.
Here are the countries that hold the most U.S. debt:
|Rank||Country||U.S. Treasury Holdings||Share of Total|
|3||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$655B||8.9%|
|6||🇰🇾 Cayman Islands||$284B||3.9%|
|11||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$221B||3.0%|
|16||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||$120B||1.6%|
|17||🇰🇷 South Korea||$103B||1.4%|
As the above table shows, the United Kingdom is the third highest holder, at over $655 billion in Treasuries. Across Europe, 13 countries are notable holders of these securities, the highest in any region, followed by Asia-Pacific at 11 different holders.
A handful of small nations own a surprising amount of U.S. debt. With a population of 70,000, the Cayman Islands own a towering amount of Treasury bonds to the tune of $284 billion. There are more hedge funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands per capita than any other nation worldwide.
In fact, the four smallest nations in the visualization above—Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Luxembourg—have a combined population of just 1.2 million people, but own a staggering $741 billion in Treasuries.
Interest Rates and Treasury Market Dynamics
Over 2022, foreign demand for Treasuries sank 6% as higher interest rates and a strong U.S. dollar made owning these bonds less profitable.
This is because rising interest rates on U.S. debt makes the present value of their future income payments lower. Meanwhile, their prices also fall.
As the chart below shows, this drop in demand is a sharp reversal from 2018-2020, when demand jumped as interest rates hovered at historic lows. A similar trend took place in the decade after the 2008-09 financial crisis when U.S. debt holdings effectively tripled from $2 to $6 trillion.
Driving this trend was China’s rapid purchase of Treasuries, which ballooned from $100 billion in 2002 to a peak of $1.3 trillion in 2013. As the country’s exports and output expanded, it sold yuan and bought dollars to help alleviate exchange rate pressure on its currency.
Fast-forward to today, and global interest-rate uncertainty—which in turn can impact national currency valuations and therefore demand for Treasuries—continues to be a factor impacting the future direction of foreign U.S. debt holdings.
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