China is buying up more U.S. farmland. Some lawmakers consider that a security threat
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
China has been buying some U.S. farmland, and some members of Congress say that's a threat to national security. One of them is Representative Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota and a member of the select committee that convened last night. He joins us by Skype early. Congressman, welcome.
DUSTY JOHNSON: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Hope you got at least a little bit of sleep. Are there complex views about China in your state, people who view China as a market?
JOHNSON: Yes, of course, there are complex views. It's a complex situation. China buys a powerful lot of South Dakota soybeans. And so there are South Dakotans who view China as a market. But I'll be honest, even in recent years, I think there has been a broadening awareness of the fact that China is a strategic competitor, no doubt.
INSKEEP: Why would it be a problem if Chinese firms - connected to the government, we presume - but Chinese businesses of some kind buy up U.S. farmland?
JOHNSON: Well, food security is national security. And I think we've seen that Russia was able to exercise undue influence over Europe because they supplied them so much natural gas. And similarly, if China has control over food supplies in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, even in North America, that can have - that can give them more power, more coercive power over the globe. That is not something that serves peace and security.
INSKEEP: You're talking in just literal terms that they might decide who to sell food to, and it might not be the United States. Is that right?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. And this is no small amount of food we're talking about. In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has increased their holdings of foreign farmland. So this is farmland outside of China by a thousand percent. They own 1,300 agricultural processing facilities outside of China, and that number is growing rapidly.
INSKEEP: Inside the United States, they've also bought some land, although it amounts to less than 1% of all foreign-owned land in the U.S. So it's not 1% of land; it's 1% of all foreign-owned land in the United States is Chinese. Do you really need to ban that activity?
JOHNSON: It is a very small piece of the pie right now in America. But one thing we heard from our witnesses last night was that you simply - is that we cannot give the Chinese Communist Party coercive power over our economy. And they have talked about how we have let that happen in batteries. We let that happen in renewable technologies. We let that happen in rare earth minerals. We have let that happen in steel. Fifty-seven percent of the world's steel is made in China, 4% in America. And so food is one area where we continue to maintain a competitive advantage. We certainly should not let that slip away.
INSKEEP: I should just be clear on one thing, and you'll correct me if I'm wrong. You indicate that China makes a whole lot more steel than the United States at this point. But the United States still makes most of its own steel for our own market, right?
JOHNSON: It does. Of course, when you have, you know, a hot economy, things you want to ramp up, particularly from a national security perspective, you do want to have lots of your own domestic production. And I think America would like to go back to the days where we were a steel exporter.
INSKEEP: OK. So getting back to your bill here, which involves farmland - or real estate generally, I suppose. What is the rule that you would put in place regarding China?
JOHNSON: It would blacklist not just China, also North Korea, Iran, Russia, state-sponsored companies or key partners of those countries, particularly the Chinese Communist Party. It would blacklist them from purchasing either American farmland or American agricultural processing facilities.
INSKEEP: Blacklist them. I'm curious if one of the side effects would be a decrease in the value of that land, fewer customers for it.
JOHNSON: Well, to your point earlier, Steve, right now the Chinese Communist Party is not a major player in farmland in this country. But, you know, we did see that they purchased a fair amount of farmland near the Grand Forks Air Force Base. We had General McMaster tell us last night that it is kind of surprising - perhaps not for people who are paying attention to China, I guess - but it is interesting how much farmland China has purchased near key military installations. So their purchases are, as of yet, not enough, I think, to drive market value. They are enough to be concerning to people who pay attention to national security.
INSKEEP: Sounds like you feel like they might be growing a little more than food on that land.
JOHNSON: Well, that was certainly what our experts suggested last night. And you alluded to the bipartisanship. And I think it's good. It was remarkable how bipartisan last night's hearing was.
INSKEEP: Congressman, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Representative Dusty Johnson is a member of the House Select Committee on China.
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