Great Falls Tribune: ‘They will do everything to weaken the United States’: Tester warns of Chinese aggression

by David Murray

In a news conference with statewide news organizations on Thursday, Montana Sen. Jon Tester warned of the threat China poses to U.S. interests, both economically and militarily.

“Montanans value our privacy and freedom, and these are values that the Chinese Communist Party wants to destroy on their way to replacing us as the world’s leading superpower,” Tester said in his opening remarks. “China is our greatest threat in the world, and whether it’s conducting illegal surveillance with spy balloons, or spreading disinformation over social media – they will do everything in their power to weaken the United States. China wants to be the new global economic leader, and they are actively working to undermine our national security at every level.”

Tester’s conference focused upon two issues, the ongoing military investigation into a rash of unidentified floating objects that have drifted into North American airspace in the past two weeks, and a surge in Chinese farmland acquisitions, which now amount more than 350,000 acres — much of which is in close proximity to U.S. military bases.

“Every day I get a brief of some sort that talks about the things that China’s doing that is out of the norm and pushing the envelope on things like national security,” he said.

Tester and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins are co-sponsoring a bipartisan effort called the “Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act,” which would prohibit the purchase of U.S. farmland by financial interests from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

The debate over farm ownership has intensified as Chinese firms over the past decade have purchased major agribusinesses, like pork processing giant Smithfield Foods. It also comes amid broader efforts by Congress and the Biden administration to curb the United States’ reliance on China in key industries critical to the nation’s supply chain.

“If they start buying enough land, then they can start shipping that food out of here and we don’t have access to feed our country,” Tester said of the importance of the Agricultural Standards Act. “I think even a greater concern than that is their ability to spy — utilize that land to set up equipment to spy on us. That’s a big problem. It’s both food security and it’s national security, and it comes both from a food production standpoint and a military assets standpoint.”

Tester noted the inherent conflict between a free market economy and any national legislation that limits to whom private property can be sold to.

“I’m a big private property rights guy, and I don’t like the government telling people what to do about anything with their land,” he said. “But this is different. This is China. This is somebody who wants this country to be second rate to them. That is a fact. They are doing everything militarily and economically to replace us in the world. I think we need to take that seriously.”

Since the Chinese balloon shoot-down off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4, three other “floating objects” have been shot down across U.S. and Canadian airspace. These objects have largely been attributed to what amounts to “atmospheric trash” – wayward weather balloons and other floating instruments that were likely released from nation states, private companies and backyard hobbyists that pose no security threat to the United States.

“There’s a lot of balloons that go up every day that there’s no record of, no lights on and quite frankly its getting to a point where I think there’s going to be a conversation in Congress about how we deal with these balloons from a safety standpoint,” Tester said. “If you’re below 45,000 feet, for sure it becomes an issue of safety.”

However, each time a U.S. fighter jet is scrambled to shoot down one of these “objects” it costs the American taxpayers in excess of $400,000 to knock it down.

“They may be nothing. We don’t know yet,” Tester said of the three floating objects identified over North America. “We don’t know if they came from China, we don’t know if they came from somebody’s back yard. Until we know what the threat was, that’s when we can do that assessment.”

“When we find out what that balloon was about, when they reverse engineer it and find what kind of information they collected — the only reason that information shouldn’t be released to the people is that gives China a military or economic advantage,” he said. “That’s the only the reason.”

“There’s a lot of atmospheric trash out there,” Tester admitted. “There’s a lot of balloons that go up every day that there’s no record of, no lights on and quite frankly its getting to a point where I think there’s going to be a conversation in Congress about how we deal with these balloons from a safety standpoint.”

“The last update I got on the recovery of the balloon in South Carolina — and it’s been about 48 hours ago — is that it’s about done,” he said of the Chinese spy balloon recovery efforts. “They’re really getting close to having it all, but they’re not 100% done. The three that followed that… all three are still in progress.”

Tester declined to directly criticize President Biden for allowing the Chinese spy balloon to sail across the country’s heartland, but he did suggest the President has an obligation to speak directly to the American people about the current situation.

“I’ve told many, many people that if were up to me I would have shot the thing down over the Aleutians. There we some reasons why it didn’t get shot down over the Aleutians, recovery being the main one, and they weren’t sure where it was going to go in that point in time. But it was in our airspace and I think it was big enough where it merited.

“They gave him their scenario of potential collateral damage and the information they’ve collected. He made a decision to shot it down over the east coast of South Carolina. I will tell you that even though all the information isn’t out … I still think people are concerned about this and hearing from the President would be a good thing.”

Montana Sen. Jon Tester warns of China’s threat to U.S. interests (