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Port: Our federal government hung Grand Forks out to dry on the Fufeng controversy

Local leaders shouldn't be on the hook for evaluating the national security implications of a Chinese-owned company building a corn milling plant.

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski
Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — The debate over a corn milling plant to be built in Grand Forks has been broiling for a while now.

Heated debates about these sort of projects aren't unusual, but typically they don't make statewide or even national headlines, because they're rooted in disagreements over things like zoning and local tax breaks. But this project has ignited debate because the company that wants to build the facility is based in China, a country ruled by cruelly authoritarian communists who aren't shy about using their country's economic reach in pursuit of things like espionage.

Supporters of the Fufeng facility dismiss this debate as some modern iteration of red scare politics. Fufeng isn't owned by the Chinese government, they argue, and doesn't pose any threat to our state or our country.

To the former point, it's hard to see the distinctions of private ownership under a smothering authoritarian regime like China's, and to the latter, we have news that national security concerns aren't just the talking points of overheated participants at local public meetings .

A recent CNBC report indicated that, while the U.S. Air Force, which operates the Grand Forks Air Force Base near where this plant would be built, hasn't taken an official stance on the facility, internally there's been a debate about the threat it would pose.

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"[I]nside 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," CNBC reported .

“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,” Maj. Jeremy Fox wrote, per the CNBC report. China collecting that data “would present a costly national security risk causing grave damage to United States’ strategic advantages.”

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Fox's memo is not the official position of the Air Force, but the Air Force also hasn't taken a position. Meanwhile, some political leaders, from both sides of the aisle, are expressing concerns.

"I’d just as soon not have the Chinese Communist Party doing business in my backyard," Sen. Kevin Cramer told CNBC , echoing similar sentiments he expressed to me on my Plain Talk podcast back in Feburary .

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, says he opposes the project . “We should be seriously concerned about Chinese investment in locations close to sensitive sites, such as military bases around the U.S.”

His Republican counterpart on the committee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, agreed . “It is dangerous, foolish, and shortsighted to allow the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies to purchase land near U.S. military installations,” he said.

All of this has to be deeply frustrating for North Dakota's local officials.

From their perspective, the project is economic development by a company with sound legal standing in our country preceded by a willing seller, willing buyer land transaction.

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There are no laws being broken, and while they are handling the more pedestrian debates about noise and smell and taxes that are rote with developments like this, they shouldn't be on the hook for evaluating the national security implications.

“I mean, we’re a municipality of about 60,000 people,” Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski told CNBC . “You know, we don’t have the budget to have an intelligence-gathering apparatus here. We do the best we can and rely on our partners.”

The State of North Dakota doesn't have those resources either.

We should be hearing from the Air Force, and the Department of Defense, and, yes, even Congress, but they've largely been silent, leaving this debate on the plates of local officials like Bochenski who (and this is no slight to them) simply aren't equipped to handle it.

We've had months of heated debate about this project, and only now are we seeing the stirrings of earnest engagement from federal officials.

Isn't that disappointing? Bochenski and other local leaders could have used that guidance a while ago.

I don't know what the fate of the Fufeng facility is, but I can tell you that, while I'm proud of the way North Dakota's officials have done their best with it, I'm disappointed in the role our federal government has played.

Or, in this case, not played.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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