Every country should pay its sovereign debt. Default, we are told, is not an option. But has anyone told China?
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.
Successive U.S. administrations have chosen to sidestep this fact, allowing business and trade with China to proceed as normal. Now that the relationship with China has soured and the People’s Republic of China has become the greatest adversarial threat to the U.S. and Western security, policymakers should revisit this appalling failure of justice.
Some history is in order. Before 1949, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) issued a large volume of long-term sovereign gold-denominated bonds, secured by Chinese tax revenues, to private investors and governments for the construction of infrastructure and financing of governmental activities. Put simply, the China we know today would not have been possible absent these bond offerings.
In 1938, during its conflict with Japan, the ROC defaulted on its sovereign debt. After the military victory of the communists, the ROC government fled to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China was eventually recognized internationally as the successor government of China. Under well-established international law, the “successor government” doctrine holds that the current government of China, led by the Chinese Communist Party, is responsible for repayment of the defaulted bonds.
A private group of American citizens holds a large quantity of these gold-denominated bonds. This citizen-led group, the American Bondholders Foundation (ABF), serves as trustee with power of attorney for some 20,000 bondholders, whose bonds are valued at well more than $1 trillion.
Then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s tough negotiation stance on the return of Hong Kong to China led to a British settlement agreement on these same Chinese bonds in 1987. Thatcher said that for China to have access to U.K. capital markets, it had to honor the defaulted Chinese sovereign debt held by British subjects. Faced with that stark choice, China agreed.
Unfortunately, the U.S. failed to take such a common-sense stance. To this day, China has had access to U.S. capital markets while openly rejecting its sovereign debt obligations to American bondholders.
Lest anyone wonder about the age of these bonds, it is irrelevant. What matters is that this is a sovereign obligation. As recently as 2010, the German government made its last payment for reparations from World War I. In 2015 Great Britain made payments on bonds issuances that dated from the 18th century.
The Biden administration and the U.S. Congress have a unique opportunity to enforce the well-established international rule that governments must honor their debts. Like the U.K. did in 1987, the U.S. must view the repayment of China’s sovereign debt as essential to its national security interests. In doing so, the U.S. government should undertake one or both of two actions currently being discussed by members of Congress.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/4/2023