Grand Forks Scuttles Major Deal With the Chinese After a Last-Minute Objection by the Air Force

Yao Dawei/Xinhua via AP

The Grand Forks city council did the right thing Monday when it canceled a $700 million deal with a Chinese agribusiness, Fufeng Group Ltd., to build a corn wet milling factory that would bring 2,000 construction and 750 production jobs to the city.

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In February 2022, the city council approved what would have been the largest private sector investment in Grand Forks’ history. The project required Grand Forks to come up with $96 million via federal, state, and local funds. That initial layout would allegedly be recouped from “utility rates and special assessments and other fees paid by Fufeng.”

The project has drawn concerns from locals over water, air and traffic impacts — and even security worries because of the Chinese-owned plant’s proximity to the Grand Forks Air Force base, [City Administrator Todd] Feland said Wednesday.

Permitting for the project will address environmental impacts and “to date, there is no concern from a national security perspective,” Feland said.

There may not have been concern about national security, but things have a way of changing.

In June, the city council voted to annex the land for development at the cost of several million dollars (one of the property owners received $2.6 million). But the annexation hearing was not without drama. Here is a gentleman named Jerol Gohrick, representing the North Dakota Sons of Liberty, challenging the project and offering to open a can of whoop-ass on the whole bunch.

 

Mr. Gohrick’s question to the council was why, as the community had fought very hard to save Grand Forks AFB from being closed, they wanted to sell land to a corporation owned by a foreign adversary just miles from that base. No one had any good answers.

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By July, the purchase had gotten the attention of Congress and voices within the USAF.

Senators of both parties raised red flags over a Chinese-owned facility in close proximity to a sensitive US military installation.

But inside the Air Force, an officer circulated a memo about the project in April, casting it as a national security threat to the United States and alleging that it fits a pattern of Chinese subnational espionage campaigns using commercial economic development projects to get close to Department of Defense installations. The officer, Maj. Jeremy Fox, argued that the Fufeng project is located on a narrow geographic footprint at which passive receiving equipment could intercept sensitive drone and space-based communications to and from the base.

“Some of the most sensitive elements of Grand Forks exist with the digital uplinks and downlinks inherent with unmanned air systems and their interaction with space-based assets,” he wrote. And any such data collection “would present a costly national security risk causing grave damage to United States’ strategic advantages.”

The Air Force tossed him under the bus.

“In an effort to raise awareness of what he deemed concerning with respect to the company in question moving into the Grand Forks area, Maj. Fox submitted his personal assessment of potential vulnerabilities to the Grand Forks Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” Lea Greene, spokeswoman for the base, said in a statement.

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By September, there was enough pressure to stop work on site infrastructure.

Finally, on January 27, the Air Force took a public stance. In a letter from the US Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics to North Dakota senators John Hoeven and Kevin Kramer, the Chinese-owned corn processing plant was deemed to be a “significant threat to national security.”

USAF Letter on Grand Forks by streiff on Scribd

The Air Force’s excuse for their late entry into the issue was that it was somebody else’s job.

They had been waiting for the federal interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to decide. The CFIUS said, “not my job, man.” This then put the Air Force hierarchy in the awkward position of making a decision that could be attributed to them. No bureaucrat likes that.

“The Department of the Air Force deferred to the Department of the Treasury during the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States’ review to assess potential risks associated with the proposed project,” [USAF spokesperson Rose ]Riley said. “When CFIUS determined it did not have jurisdiction, the department made clear its views on the proposed project’s significant threat to national security through direct correspondence with state officials.”

This story has a lot of interesting parallels to the Chinese spy balloon story (US Navy Sailors Recover Remains of Chinese Spy Balloon but We Still Have Lots of Questions and No Plausible Answers). The Chinese made an aggressive gambit that caught the US Defense establishment — and the White House — flatfooted. Finally, after a lengthy spell of ass-scratching, the correct decision was made. But there was a cost. In the case of the balloon, we gave the Chinese a week to monitor our communications and decisionmaking processes. In North Dakota, several million dollars were spent on a project that has been killed. In both cases, the Chinese learned a lot about us, but I’m afraid we learned damned little.

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The Chinese have bought millions of acres of farmland in the US, Canada, and northern Europe; 13% of all Dutch farmland is owned by the Chinese, while the Dutch government has declared war on its own farmers.

Another factor to consider is that China prefers to avoid military conflict and seek to achieve its ends by political and economic means (see the book Unrestricted Warfare; you can get your free copy here). In the Western Pacific, China has been buying entire countries (China Seeks to Buy Eight Pacific Island Nations While Joe Biden and His State Department Are Comatose) and taking possession of real estate within line-of-sight of US and Allied military installations. They are doing it by “elite capture.” That is, they simply suborn the elites, and those people do the leg work. They are obviously doing the same in Western Europe (do you think it is a coincidence that Italy, of all places, was the first to adopt China’s draconian COVID lockdown policies or that other countries quickly followed) and in the United States? Our counterintelligence people need to stop worrying about Gretchen Whitmer getting kidnapped by a slew of FBI agents and informants and pay more attention to the real threat.

More importantly, we must shake off this insane, lackadaisical, business-as-usual approach. China is at war with us; we just haven’t moved to the kinetic part of the spectrum. We need to treat their provocations for what they are. We can’t let a spy balloon traipse across North America, while we try to figure out what to do. We can’t let the Chinese potentially open up a manufacturing facility near a highly sensitive US military installation because we are waiting on the “interagency process” to run its course. This is serious stuff and we need to treat it as such.

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