HARLOWTON, Mont. (AP) – Near the banks of Montana’s Musselshell River, rancher Michael Miller saw a large, white orb over the town of Harlowton last week, a day before U.S. officials revealed they were tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the state. The balloon caused a stir in the town of 900 people surrounded by cattle ranches, wind farms and scattered nuclear missile silos behind chain-link fences.
Miller worries about China as a growing threat to the US, but questions how much intelligence can be gleaned from the balloon. China’s bigger threat, he said, is to the American economy. Like many across the country, Miller questions whether stricter laws are needed to prohibit the sale of farmland to foreign nationals so that power over agriculture and the food supply doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.
“It’s best not to have a foreign entity buy the land, especially one that isn’t very friendly to us,” Miller said. “They will only take over us economically, instead of militarily.”
Miller’s concerns are increasingly shared by US lawmakers after a Chinese balloon’s trip over US skies fueled tensions between Washington and Beijing.
In Congress and statehouses, the balloon’s journey has heightened decades-old concerns about foreign land ownership. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, is sponsoring legislation that would include agriculture as a factor in national security decisions that allow foreign real estate investment.
“The bottom line is that we don’t want people from China to own our agricultural land. It’s against food safety and against national security,” Tester told The Associated Press.
At least 11 state legislatures are also considering measures to address the problem. That includes Montana and North Dakota, where the U.S. Air Force recently warned that a $700 million corn mill proposed near a military base by the U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese company would threaten national security.
City council members in Grand Forks, North Dakota, endured a barrage of criticism from city residents Monday night before voting 5-0 to abandon the plan. The move comes a year after North Dakota’s governor called the project “remarkable,” saying it would bring new jobs and strengthen the agriculture industry.
Furious residents of the city of 59,000 near the Minnesota border demanded the resignations of council members they said tried to push through the plan, dismissing China’s threats to national security.
“You decided, for whatever reason, that this was such a fantastic thing for our city that you stared,” said Dexter Perkins, a geology professor at the University of North Dakota. “You went all in when there were a gazillion unanswered questions.”
Before the Air Force warning, officials said they were not in a position to comment on matters of national security.
Foreign entities and individuals control less than 3% of U.S. farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that, those linked to China control less than 1%, or roughly 600 square miles (340 square kilometers).
However, in recent years, agricultural and non-agricultural land transactions have attracted attention, especially in states with a large US military presence.
Restrictions on foreign individuals or entities owning farmland vary widely across the US. Most states allow it, while 14 have restrictions. No country has a complete ban. Of the five states where the federal Department of Agriculture says entities with ties to China own the most farmland, four do not restrict foreign ownership: North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Utah.
A fifth, Missouri, has a limit on foreign land ownership that state lawmakers want to tighten.
Supporters of ownership restrictions often speculate about the motives of foreign buyers and whether people with ties to adversaries such as China intend to use the land to spy on or exert control over the American food supply.
In 2021, Texas banned infrastructure deals with individuals linked to hostile governments, including China. The policy comes after a Chinese military veteran and real estate tycoon bought a wind farm in a border town near a US Air Force base. This year, Texas Republicans want to expand that by banning land purchases by individuals and entities from hostile countries, including China.
Critics see it as hysteria against foreigners, with the Asian-American community in Texas particularly concerned about the effect on immigrants looking to buy homes and build businesses.
In Utah, concerns have focused on a Chinese company’s 2015 purchase of a speedway near a military depot and Chinese-owned farms that export alfalfa and hay from drought-stricken parts of the state.
Lawmakers are considering two proposals this year that would, to varying degrees, bar entities linked to foreign governments from owning land.
“Do we really want any foreign country to come and buy our farmland, our forests or our mineral rights?” asked Republican state representative Kay Christopherson, who is sponsoring one of the bills. “If it were to interfere with our sovereignty — especially in a state of emergency or during a threat to national security — I think we would lose our ability as a country to be independent and self-sufficient.”
Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the fight to limit foreign ownership of land followed rising tensions between the US and China. Welsh shares concerns about US adversaries buying up land near military bases like Grand Forks, but says worries about China controlling the food supply are overstated.
“China is only a small part of the bigger picture of foreign ownership,” Welsh said. “When it comes to food security, the biggest threat is that foreign owners can potentially pay a higher price for agricultural land, which then raises prices.”
The restrictions have met with resistance in states with strong property rights. In Wyoming, two proposals to limit foreign land ownership failed this week, even as Republicans who control the statehouse sympathized with concerns that China was expanding its reach.
“We’ve had a lot of problems with China in the air lately. Big balloons are flying above us. We view this as national and state security legislation for Wyoming and the United States,” said Rep. Bill Allemand, a Casper Republican.
Lawmakers on Monday rejected Allemand’s proposal to ban ownership of more than one hectare of land by people from countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, including Russia and China. Skeptics say it will be difficult to control because of the complex web of ownership companies and holding corporations in agricultural real estate.
“This is very easy to get around,” said Republican Representative Martha Lawley. “We might end the day feeling good about ourselves, but we’ve opened ourselves up to a lot of responsibility.”
Questions about foreign investment are increasingly fueling debate about whether cities and states should roll out welcome mats or close the door to potential threats. The issue can pit local officials interested in economic development against state and federal agencies concerned with national security.
That was initially the case with a proposed corn mill in Grand Forks, where officials touted the plans last year. But days after US aircraft shot down a Chinese balloon, which China insists was just a weather balloon, the mood faded and the city changed course.
“There’s something I’ve learned through this process, and that’s sometimes to slow down and make sure we fully understand before we go to the next level,” Grand Forks Councilman Ken Vein said before voting to abandon the mill for corn.
Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, David Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, and AP reporters across the US contributed reporting.