North Dakota

Air Force opposes Chinese-owned corn plant near ND base

The U.S. Air Force has told North Dakota leaders that it believes plans by a Chinese company to build a wet corn milling facility near its base in Grand Forks pose a “significant national security threat,” city officials said to say they will move to halt a project once touted as an economic boon.

The Fufeng Group’s proposed $700 million facility would be 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base, a location that raised some local concerns about possible espionage. Governor Doug Burgum and U.S. scythes John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer — all Republicans — urged the federal government in July to expedite a review of all security risks.

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Business relations between the US and China are strained amid growing tensions between the two countries over security and trade issues that often overlap. China on Monday criticized US controls on technology exports as a trade violation. Fearing spying, US forces have banned Chinese app TikTok on military devices, and nearly half of state governments across the country have banned the video-sharing platform from state devices.

Grand Forks Air Force Base is a center for air and space operations, according to a letter from Andrew Hunter, an assistant secretary of the Air Force, to Hoeven and Cramer. The senators released the correspondence on Tuesday.

“The proposed project poses a significant threat to national security, with both short and long-term risks of having a significant impact on our operations in the region,” Hunter wrote. The letter did not provide any evidence that Fufeng posed a threat, nor did it detail what kind of risks the company’s business might pose.

Still, it was enough to persuade local authorities to take action.

“We believe the city should abandon the Fufeng project and instead work together to find an American company to develop the farming project,” Hoeven and Cramer said in a joint statement.

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski said in a statement that he would ask his city council to refuse planning permission for the project and refuse to open the 370-acre site at Grand Forks Agri-Business Park to the public connect infrastructure. The mayor, who had previously endorsed the project, added the federal government’s response has been “slow and inconsistent”.

“It clearly reflects both growing skepticism about trade relations with China and a sense of the security risks posed by Chinese investments,” said Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Without knowing more about the specific risks the Air Force fears, it’s not clear why the military views Fufeng’s proposed mill as a greater threat than any other Chinese presence in the region, Segal said. There is already a Chinese-owned Cirrus Aircraft plant in the region.

Fufeng officials have previously denied that the facility would be used for espionage purposes. The company declined a request for comment on Wednesday. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Grand Forks City Council granted its first permit last February for the project, which officials said at the time could be the largest private sector investment in the community’s history. The governor also initially supported him.

But council meetings grew heated over the summer amid growing public opposition and increasingly strained US-China relations.

Given the Luftwaffe’s “unambiguous” position, Burgum welcomed the city’s decision to try to prevent Fufeng from building the mill. He said in a statement that he would support the city’s efforts to find another partner for a corn milling operation.

Privately held, Fufeng manufactures products for animal nutrition, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, health and wellness, oil and gas and other industries. It is a leading producer of xanthan gum. The Grand Forks site was intended to be its first manufacturing facility in the United States, and it was expected to initially require 25 million bushels of corn annually.

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