The immediate north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, appears to be an improbable place for international espionage at first appearance since it is primarily arid and windswept.
The more than 300-acre parcel of ideal Dakota farmland, surrounded by roads and small industrial facilities on the outskirts of the city, is now mostly made up of soil and thick grass.
A crop production business, a truck and trailer service, and Patio World, a retailer of landscaping materials for suburban backyards, are the closest neighbors.
But when the three North Dakotans who had held these land pieces sold them this spring for millions of dollars, the deal alarmed people as far away as Washington, D.C.
Air Force Base in Grand Forks
This is because the site was purchased by a Chinese business, the Fufeng Group, located in Shandong, China, and Grand Forks Air Force Base, which houses some of the most sensitive military drone technology in the country, is just about 20 minutes away from the property.
A North Dakota lawmaker claimed the site is also home to a new space networking center, which manages "the backbone of all U.S. military communications throughout the globe."
The Chinese maize milling operation should be blocked, say some security experts, since it might provide Chinese intelligence access to the facility like never before.
It's a unique American battle that pits a community's property and economic rights against national security advisories from senior government figures in the capital.
The proposal has sparked controversy in the small hamlet, with contentious city council meetings, rivalry among local politicians, and neighborhood organizations mobilizing to oppose it.
The owner of a trucking firm that borders Chinese-controlled territory, Craig Spicer, expressed his suspicions about the new company's motives. “I'm worried about my grandchildren," he said, “It makes me anxious for my children,"
Gary Bridgeford, who last year sold his farming tract to the Chinese corporation for around $2.6 million, thinks the national security fears are exaggerated. Brandon Bochenski, the mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, claims that all he wants is to do business. More than 200 new employment would be created in the city by the $700 million factory.
Grand Forks Mayor Doug Burgener states, "We don't have the budget to build an intelligence-gathering operation here. The Chinese project in the United States Air Force's backyard in North Dakota is not the subject of an official statement. However, a note regarding the proposal was distributed internally by an Air Force official in April. The Fufeng project, he claimed, is situated on a small geographic footprint.
Fox said that the Chinese property would make it difficult for the Air Force to perform electronic monitoring of drone and satellite signals. He argued that passive collection of those signals would be undetected since all that would be needed to do it would be standard antennas adjusted to the appropriate collecting frequencies. This poses a serious risk to the infrastructure maintained by the Department of Defense and seriously jeopardizes US national security.
That exists the Air Force's official view, though.
Fox reportedly came up with the memo on his own, according to an Air Force spokeswoman. "In order to draw attention to what he saw to be problematic for the corporation in issue going to the Grand Forks region, Maj. Fox submitted his assessment of potential vulnerabilities to the Grand Forks Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations," according to a statement from the base's spokeswoman, Lea Greene.
In a report released on May 26, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission underlined Fox's worries about intelligence. Fox is not the only authority in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that is worried about agriculture. The business at the center of the controversy contends that its initiative will benefit Americans rather than harm them.
Despite the potential economic benefits the project would have for his voters, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, opposes it. He claimed he has doubts about the motives of the Chinese government. In an interview, he stated, "I think we vastly underappreciate how adept they are at gathering information, gathering data, and exploiting it in evil ways." Therefore, I'd much rather the Chinese Communist Party not conduct business in my neighborhood.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's Democratic chairman and Republican ranking member both expressed opposition to the proposal to CNBC.
However, he asserts that if fresh evidence surfaces that may endanger the project, he is prepared to change course.
The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said, "We should be highly worried about Chinese investment in areas adjacent to critical sites." It is risky, unwise, and shortsighted, according to Senator Marco Rubio, to let the Chinese Communist Party buy land close to American military sites.