Countries that have bought the most US debt over the last 15 years

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September 16, 2021
Sean Pavone // Shutterstock

Countries that have bought the most US debt over the last 15 years

Thirty-three percent of U.S. debt is foreign-owned, with China and Japan topping the list of owners. Both have more than $1 trillion, though China owns less than it did in 2013, when it accounted for nearly 8% of all U.S. debt, which is seen as a safe investment.​​

The amount of foreign-owned U.S. debt grew by $1 trillion to a total of $7 trillion between 2016 and 2020, according to a Congressional Research Service report that was updated in July 2021. Foreign holdings had leveled off, then increased again in 2019 and 2020, but because U.S. total debt grew faster, the share owned by foreigners has declined.

The U.S. is buying more imports than it sells exports and runs a trade deficit. But federal borrowing might not be bad for the country, if, for example, the borrowing sparks an economic recovery, the Congressional Research Service points out.

To find the countries that have bought the most U.S. debt over the last 15 years, Stacker analyzed April 2021 data from the Treasury Department. Countries were included only if they were considered “major foreign holders of U.S. treasury securities” in 2006 and 2021. Countries were ranked by the absolute increase in dollars from April 2006 to April 2021. Read on to see which countries have bought the most debt in the past 15 years. 

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#20. Germany

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $30.8 billion (65.5%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $47 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $77.8 billion

Germany is taking on its own debt to counter the economic stagnation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Reuters reports that its new debt related to the pandemic could be more than 450 billion euros between 2020 and 2022. Germany is the third-largest exporter in the world, behind China and the United States, and nearly 50% of the country’s GDP depends on exports. The size of its economy makes Germany a key member of the EU, which is the U.S.’s largest trading partner. Major exports from the U.S. to Germany include aircraft and parts, vehicles, and pharmaceuticals.

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#19. Poland

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $40.2 billion (326.8%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $12.3 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $52.5 billion

The U.S. invests more in Poland than any country outside of those in the EU, and in 2020 imported $8.3 billion worth of goods. American companies are drawn to Poland because of its economic growth, its large market within the country, access to the EU without tariffs, and well-educated workers. Poland's economy is coming out of the coronavirus pandemic on better footing than some other European countries.

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#18. Thailand

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $44.2 billion (283.3%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $15.6 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $59.8 billion

Thailand has the largest economy on the mainland of Southeast Asia, with a GDP of $538.7 billion as of April 2021, according to the U.S. State Department. It is the second-largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The U.S. and Thailand exchanged $48.8 billion in goods in 2020. The U.S. spent $17.7 billion in Thailand in foreign direct investment in 2019, coming in behind Japan and Singapore.

Thailand has been praised for its rapid move from a low income to an upper-middle-income economy, but growth has slowed lately—a result of tensions between the U.S. and China, a drought, and less public investment.

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#17. Israel

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $48.0 billion (358.2%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $13.4 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $61.4 billion

Since 1985, when the U.S. and Israel signed a free trade agreement, the U.S. has become Israel’s largest trading partner. The U.S. exported $14.7 worth of goods to Israel in 2019 and imported $19.6 billion worth of goods. Similarly, it exported $5.7 billion worth of services to Israel and imported $7.4 billion. That amounts to almost $50 billion in trade between the two countries. Israel’s economy shrunk by 6.5% in the first quarter of 2021. Economists caution that fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants could slow recovery from the pandemic.

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#16. Netherlands

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $49.6 billion (322.1%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $15.4 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $65 billion

The U.S. had the second-largest bilateral trade surplus with the Netherlands at $21 billion in 2019, according to the U.S. State Department. It also is the largest foreign investor in the Netherlands. Meanwhile the Netherlands is number eight in the world as far as importing U.S. goods. In November of 2020, the Dutch government said it expected its debt-to-GDP ratio to rise to 57.4% as a result of pandemic spending.

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#15. France

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $77.7 billion (258.1%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $30.1 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $107.8 billion

The U.S. State Department ranks France as a major trading partner, trailing only Germany and the U.K. The value of goods and services traded between the two countries in 2019 reached more than $138 billion. Among U.S. exports to France are aircraft, electronic components, and computer software. In addition, the U.S. is France’s largest foreign investor.

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#14. Canada

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $81.2 billion (232.7%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $34.9 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $116.1 billion

Canada buys more goods from the U.S. than China, Japan, and the U.K. combined, making it the U.S.’s largest customer. It is even the leading trading partner for 30 individual states and some 725,000 Americans work for Canadian companies in the U.S. Trade in goods and services between the two countries—the other’s largest export market—reached $615 billion in 2020. Canada also provides more energy to the U.S. than any other foreign supplier.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) took effect July 1, 2020.

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#13. Norway

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $109.3 billion
- April 2006 US debt held: $0
- April 2021 US debt held: $109.3 billion

Norway is a major supplier of energy, ranking second in the world in natural gas exports and 11th in oil. Among the U.S. exports to Norway are aircraft, vehicles, and machinery; imports include fish, seafood, and machinery. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects real GDP in the country to rise by 3.4% in 2021 and by 3.7% in 2022.

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#12. Singapore

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $134.3 billion (364.9%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $36.8 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $171.1 billion

Bilateral trade in goods between the U.S. and Singapore totaled $45 billion in 2016, according to the U.S. State Department. That’s a 62% increase since 2004 when the two countries reached a free trade agreement. The U.S. also is the largest foreign investor in Singapore. The country expects its economy to grow between 4% and 6% in 2021 as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

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#11. Taiwan

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $165.1 billion (239.6%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $68.9 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $234 billion

The U.S. has unofficial relations with Taiwan under what’s called the One China policy. Since 1979, the U.S. has recognized the government of China as “the sole legal government of China.” Taiwan and the U.S. have strong trade ties, and the U.S. is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner after China. But the value of Taiwan's exports to and imports from the U.S. fell between 1990 and 2015, according to The Brookings Institution.

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#10. Hong Kong

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $166.4 billion (336.2%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $49.5 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $215.9 billion

Hong Kong imports aircraft and spacecraft from the U.S. as well as machinery, pearls, gold, diamonds, meat, and other items that in 2018 totaled $31 billion. That trade resulted in the largest surplus with a single trading partner. Services imported by Hong Kong came to $12.8 billion. U.S. relations with Hong Kong have undergone a change since the territory was returned to China’s sovereignty in 1997, but more than 1,300 American companies still operate there.

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#9. India

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $196.4 billion (1596.7%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $12.3 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $208.7 billion

Trade between the U.S. and India in goods and services was valued at $149 billion in 2019. Energy exports from the U.S. were a major component, with India buying 48.2 million barrels of U.S. crude oil in 2018. That’s a jump from 9.6 million barrels the year before. India’s economy shrunk by 7.7% in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and a contraction in domestic consumption, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD. The organization has projected India’s economy to rebound strongly, but the coronavirus continues to spread.

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#8. Belgium

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $217.4 billion (1249.4%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $17.4 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $234.8 billion

A number of American banks, law firms, accounting firms, and public relations companies are based in Belgium, and the country has drawn U.S. investments in petroleum refineries, automotive assembly plants, and other areas. An economic survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD in May 2021 found that unemployment was at a historic low, but that most of the jobs had been created in low-wage industries.

In 2014, Belgium’s holdings of U.S. Treasuries more than doubled—likely a result of a clearinghouse, Euroclear, which handles assets for more than 2,000 financial institutions.

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#7. Brazil

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $224.5 billion (728.9%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $30.8 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $255.3 billion

The U.S. is Brazil’s second-largest trading partner after China. Trade between the two countries amounted to $103.9 billion in 2018; in 2020, the U.S. had a $20.6 billion trade surplus. Brazil’s main imports are machinery, optical and medical instruments, petroleum products, aircraft, and electronics, according to the U.S. State Department. For Brazil, the main export products are crude oil, iron and steel, and machinery. As of 2017, the U.S. had invested $68.34 billion in Brazil, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

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#6. Switzerland

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $229.9 billion (739.2%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $31.1 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $261 billion

The U.S. is the top foreign investor in Switzerland, according to the U.S. State Department, and receives a large amount of Switzerland’s investment. The U.S. exports pharmaceuticals, medical and optical instruments, and aircraft, among other products, and imports agricultural products, machinery, pharmaceuticals, and medical and optical instruments. There are about 1,000 American companies based in Switzerland with 90,000 employees, and some 500 Swiss companies in the U.S.

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#5. Luxembourg

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $253.5 billion (676.0%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $37.5 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $291 billion

Luxembourg is a major European financial center, with a number of U.S. banks and asset management companies. On a per-capita basis, ​​it has ranked as the second wealthiest country in the world. U.S. exports to Luxembourg include aircraft and communications equipment, and American companies invest in the country. Luxembourg meanwhile buys intellectual property and services, including medical research, from the U.S. The countries are collaborating on space research.

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#4. United Kingdom

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $265.6 billion (159.8%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $166.2 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $431.8 billion

The United States and the United Kingdom have a long shared history and trade more than $260 billion in goods and services each year, according to the U.S. State Department. The two countries are each other’s top source of foreign direct investment, totaling more than $1 trillion. The U.K. is the world’s fifth largest economy.

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#3. Ireland

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $289.3 billion (1634.5%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $17.7 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $307 billion

Ireland and the United States have strong historical and cultural ties. The U.S. is second only to the United Kingdom in the amount of goods it exports to Ireland, and it receives about 27% of Irish exports. Some 700 U.S. companies, attracted by Ireland’s membership in the EU, its English-speaking workforce, and low corporate tax rates, use Ireland as their European base, among them Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Some observers think those companies' holdings account for Ireland’s spot at #3.

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#2. Japan

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $637.3 billion (99.7%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $639.4 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $1.3 trillion

Japan and the United States have been allies since after World War II, with a joint interest in countering a dominant China and a belligerent North Korea. It is the U.S.'s fourth-largest trading partner for imports and the fifth largest for exports, according to the Congressional Research Service. Two trade deals negotiated by the Trump administration expanded markets for U.S. agricultural exports and eliminated the threat of new tariffs on Japanese automobiles.

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#1. China

- 15-year total US debt holdings increase: $775.0 billion (241.4%)
- April 2006 US debt held: $321.1 billion
- April 2021 US debt held: $1.1 trillion

Relations between the United States and China grew particularly contentious under former President Donald Trump and reached a low point over issues such as tariffs, human rights violations, and tech battles. The Biden Administration is critical of tariffs imposed by the previous administration on $360 billion worth of Chinese imports, meant to protect American industries, but which it says hurts American consumers.

Experts worry China could weaponize the debt it holds by selling it off, raising U.S. interest rates, but such a move could make Chinese exports more expensive. Since the 1990s, China has run a trade surplus with the U.S. and has large foreign reserves, much of it in dollars, but it has reduced its U.S. debt holdings since 2011 because of falling exports and a stronger U.S. dollar.

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