Highlights

  • China's Fufeng Group bought 300-acre farmland in USA's North Dakota
  • Plot located around 20 minutes from US Air Force's Grand Forks base
  • US Air Force officer warned that communication could be intercepted from factory

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China using factories in USA to spy? $2.6 million land deal near Air Force drone base sparks worry

A Chinese company's purchase of farmland near a sensitive US Air Force drone base in North Dakota has sparked worries of espionage.

On the face of it, it's a farm facility, making corn oil, starch, and other products from corn kernels. But behind the walls sit sinister spies, tracking military drones, and trying to intercept confidential communication.

This is the worry gripping America, after a Chinese company bought large tracts of land near a US military base. China's Fufeng Group bought 300 acres of farmland in Grand Forks, North Dakota recently. The land was sold by 3 locals for $2.6 million.

The plot is 19 km, or a 20-minute drive, from a major military base. The Grand Forks base is a sensitive drone facility managed by the US Air Force. The Air Force Base reportedly houses some of America's most sensitive drone technology, and also a new space networking centre. The networking centre is "the backbone of all US military communication across the globe", according to a US senator who spoke to CNBC.

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A US Air Force officer has warned that drone and satellite transmissions could easily be surveilled from the Chinese factory. Major Jeremy Fox reportedly said that passive receiving equipment like antennae could be used for spying.

These antennae would simply need to be tuned to the right frequencies to intercept drone and space-based communication. Transmissions to and from the base could easily be collected. To add to the threat, this passive signal collection would be undetectable by the US.

The Air Force officer raised alarm about the espionage threat in an internal memo. Major Fox reportedly said that data collection by China would "present a costly national security risk". He warned that the case may cause grave damage to US strategic advantages, and that it fits a pattern of Chinese subnational espionage. Major Fox accused Beijing of using commercial economic development projects to get close to Defense Department facilities.

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However, the US Air Force has not taken an official position on the matter. The force called Major Fox's comments his personal effort to raise awareness of potential vulnerabilities.

But the soldier's worries have been mirrored by US politicians. Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, who represents North Dakota, said that he doesn't want the Chinese Communist Party doing business in his "backyard". Senator Cramer said America underestimates Beijing's capability to collect data and use it in "nefarious ways".

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, is also worried about Chinese spying. Commenting on the North Dakota situation, the Democrat party leader said that America should be "seriously concerned" about Chinese investments near sensitive US facilities.

The allegations have agitated China. Fufeng USA's COO has insisted that there is no possibility of espionage from the North Dakota plant.
The company has insisted that the $700 million project is just a corn milling plant The company says that it is helping the local community by creating 200 direct jobs, and other opportunities like logistics.

The Chinese government has also entered the debate, with an official telling the New York Post that Chinese firms investing abroad are told to obey local laws. Beijing criticised USA's 'generalisation of the concept of national security and abuse of state power". China also sought a fair and just environment for its companies in the US.

This case is not just important for America, but also pertinent for countries like India which have seen tension with China rise in recent years.

The Indian government has in the past raised the issue of Chinese companies being misused to threaten India's national security. A ban on multiple Chinese apps, including PUBG, was imposed due to alleged stealing and transmission of user data.

In such a situation, Delhi might need to keep an eye on Chinese investments in India, especially near military installations.

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