Members of the Chinese scientific expedition team pose for photos onboard China’s icebreaker Snow Dragon, July 31, 2017, during the country’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic rim. Photo Credit: Yu Qiongyuan/Zuma Press
By: Christine Bang-Andersen, Columnist
Trying its best to finally cut its colonial ties and gain independence from Denmark, Greenland has begun exploring alternatives for economic sponsorship. Eyeing an opportunity to establish itself in the High North, China declared itself a “Near Arctic state” in 2018 and continues to flex its muscles in the region with significant, strategic investments in Greenland.[i] These investments are a thorn in the side of Denmark and the U.S., and have thrown even more gravel into the already rocky Greenlandic-Danish relationship. As American officials express persistent concern about increased Chinese influence in the region and their Danish counterparts continue dragging their feet out of fear of offending their ex-colony, it is time for Denmark and the U.S. to realize that they are taking the wrong approach and ignoring what really matters — Greenlandic interests. As the population becomes more politically conscious and ardent in its pursuit of independence, we must realize that dealing with Greenland purely as strategic terrain to be exploited is harmful rather than helpful, and that the only way to mitigate Chinese influence is by taking into account Greenlandic interests.
Greenland is a peculiar case of a nation caught in colonial history and the security interests of a global superpower. Officially, Greenland was a colony of Denmark until 1953, when its status was changed to a constituency. In 2009, Greenland introduced Self-Government, introducing political independence in all areas except foreign and defense policy.[ii] Greenland, due to its geographic position, came to play an important strategic role for U.S. missile defense during the Cold War, including controversial deployment of B-52 bombers.[iii] Today, the U.S. maintains Thule Airbase, which houses several strategic assets vital to U.S. homeland defense. For example, 21st Space Wing operates missile warning, space surveillance and space control systems in Thule.[iv] These capabilities are all considered critical to any military operation running through the Arctic.
As seen elsewhere across the globe, China now also pursues a strategy of seemingly benign investments in Greenland to buy influence far from home. It has invested large sums of money in natural resource mining such as uranium and zinc in Kvanefjeld, and iron ore in Isua.[v] The Greenlandic government has welcomed the investments, which currently account for 11.6% of GDP. Greenland considers Chinese investments as an important push towards financial independence from the massive Danish subsidies that make up 50% of Greenland’s budget.[vi] Since China first began significantly investing in Greenland in 2012, concern in Copenhagen and Washington has, in some cases, prompted swift political response. In 2016, Denmark blocked the sale of an abandoned U.S.-built military naval facility at Grønnedal to the Chinese SOE General Nice, fearing that it would pose a threat to Thule Airbase.[vii] Additionally in the fall of 2017, Denmark denied a Chinese bid to develop three airports in Greenland after originally selecting China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), a Chinese SOE barred by the World Bank, as a finalist for the $560 million project.[viii] The potential sale worried the U.S. and Denmark for two reasons. First, the project would make China an unprecedentedly large driver of Greenland’s economy. Second, the runways at the airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat were to be extended to 2,200 meters, putting them near the runway length needed for fourth and fifth generation military fighter jets, suggesting China may have a dual-use intent in developing the airfields.[ix]
In response to potential Chinese investments in Greenlandic airport infrastructure, in September 2018 the Department of Defense released a Statement of Intent to make strategic investments, which may serve dual civilian-military purposes.[x] This is a good start, but illustrates the incomplete analysis guiding both Danish and American policy towards Greenland. Efforts like these are simply putting out fires instead of focusing on long-term gains that can be earned through credible commitment to the country’s wellbeing. One way to do this would be by opening an American Presence Post in Nuuk signaling American intent to engage with the Greenlandic population.[xi] Sticking to existing structures, the U.S. could also increase engagement in the Joint Committee set up between Greenland, Denmark and the U.S. with the Igaliku Agreement in 2004 to facilitate interaction and forge collaboration in education, health, scientific research and other areas in return for American military presence on the island.[xii] The Committee was suspended in 2014 when a service contract on Thule Airbase switched hands from a Greenlandic to American contractor costing 60 Greenlandic jobs and signaling U.S. disregard for their hosts.[xiii] However, Denmark and Greenland have aired the possibility of restarting meetings in 2019 following a $40 million increase in US expenditure towards “mission upgrades” at Thule.[xiv] This type of diplomatic engagement is cheap for the U.S. and would provide inroads for US influence by offering a viable alternative to Chinese investments and dependence on the Danish subsidies, that Greenland so sorely wants to eliminate.
Denmark’s situation, however, is different as it builds on a painful colonial history and distrust that permeates all interactions with Greenland. In light of a foreign policy shift emphasizing Denmark’s role as an ‘Arctic great power’, Denmark needs to determine what Greenland means to the country today and how important it is for Danish foreign policy goals, as well as national identity, to maintain a presence on the island.[xv] Once this is determined, Denmark will have a clearer perspective on how to deal with Greenland’s pursuit for independence in the long-term in a way that assists Danish foreign policy goals and respects Greenland’s interests, while also keeping China out of the picture.
Change is needed in the Danish and American approach to Greenland and it is foolish of both countries to continue its practices and expect a different outcome. If the U.S. and Denmark are serious about keeping Greenland within their sphere of influence and keeping it out of China’s, they must take into account the root of the issue – Greenland. If not, we can most likely expect Greenland to be China’s first base in the Arctic.
[i] “Part II of China’s Arctic Policy”, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, January 2018, http://english.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm; Sherri Goodman & Marisol Maddox, “China’s Growing Arctic Presence”, China-US Focus, November 19th, 2018, https://www.chinausfocus.com/finance-economy/chinas-growing-arctic-presence.
[ii] “Politics in Greenland”, Naalakersuisut Webpage, Accessed February 2019, https://naalakkersuisut.gl/en/About-government-of-greenland/About-Greenland/Politics-in-Greenland.
[iv] Aaron Mehta, “How a potential Chinese-built airport in Greenland could be risky for a vital US Air Force Base”, Defense News, September 7th, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2018/09/07/how-a-potential-chinese-built-airport-in-greenland-could-be-risky-for-a-vital-us-air-force-base/.
[v] “Isua – An Iron Ore Project in Greeland”, Mining Atlas, Last accessed December 13th, 2018, https://mining-atlas.com/project/Isua-Iron-Ore-Mine-Project.php.
[vi] Mark E. Rosen & Cara B. Thuringer, “Unconstrained Foreign Direct Investment: An Emerging Challenge to Arctic Security”, CNA Analysis and Solutions, December 8th, 2017, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/COP-2017-U-015944-1Rev.pdf.
[vii] Adam Hannestad, “Nu vil Kina til at købe et militært anlæg i Grønland, men Lars Løkke siger nej”, Politiken, December 16th, 2016, https://politiken.dk/udland/art5743147/Nu-vil-Kina-til-at-k%C3%B8be-et-milit%C3%A6rt-anl%C3%A6g-i-Gr%C3%B8nland-men-Lars-L%C3%B8kke-siger-nej.
[viii] Aaron Mehta, “How a potential Chinese-built airport in Greenland could be risky for a vital US Air Force Base”, Defense News, September 7th, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2018/09/07/how-a-potential-chinese-built-airport-in-greenland-could-be-risky-for-a-vital-us-air-force-base/.
[ix] Kevin McGwin, “US defense investments in Greenland infrastructure would keep NATO in, China out and Russia at bay”, Arctic Today, September 19th, 2018, https://www.arctictoday.com/us-defense-investments-greenland-infrastructure-keep-nato-china-russia-bay/.
[x] “United States keen to invest strategically in Greenland”, Reuters, September 17th, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-greenland-politics-usa/united-states-keen-to-invest-strategically-in-greenland-idUSKCN1LX1V3.
[xi] Mary Thompson-Jones, “Why America Should Lose Sleep Over Greenland (Think China)”, The National Interest, April 18th, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-america-should-lose-sleep-over-greenland-think-china-25447?page=0%2C1.
[xii] “Joint Committee”, U.S. Embassy in Denmark Webpage, Accessed February 2019, https://dk.usembassy.gov/our-relationship/u-s-greenland/joint-committee/.
[xiii] Helle Nørrelund Sørensen, “Lektor: Samarbejde med USA kan få nyt liv”, KNR, November 8th, 2018, https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/samarbejde-med-usa-kan-f%C3%A5-nyt-liv.
[xiv] Helle Nørrelund Sørensen, “Pituffik: USA’s årsrapporter afslører ‘opgradering’ af basens mission”, KNR, October 20th, 2018, https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/usa%E2%80%99s-%C3%A5rsrapporter-afsl%C3%B8rer-opgradering-af-basens-mission.
[xv] Thomas Bech Hansen, “Spillet om Grønlands uafhængighed er en kamp på ord og jura”, RUC, 31. oktober, 2018, https://ruc.dk/nyheder/spillet-om-gronlands-uafhaengighed-er-en-kamp-pa-ord-og-jura; Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, “Denmark Engages in Arctic Nation-Bending”, World Policy, May 25th, 2016, https://worldpolicy.org/2016/05/25/denmark-engages-in-arctic-nation-bending/.