Is Greenland the Focal Point in the Arctic Race?
IndraStra Global

Is Greenland the Focal Point in the Arctic Race?

By Rashmi Ramesh
National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India

Is Greenland the Focal Point in the Arctic Race?

A contest involves certain basic elements- time, place, goal, rationale, actors, and tools used by them in a bid to reach the goal.

The brewing geopolitical contest in the Arctic in the post-Cold War era has brought Greenland under the spotlight, the closest landmass to the North Pole. US, China, and Russia being the key actors, are aiming for increased influence in the region and material gains from the island. 

Why Greenland? What are these actors doing on the island? How does Denmark perceive such developments?

Why Greenland? 

Greenland contains more than 10 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. From a climate change perspective, the Greenlandic ice sheet is extremely important to maintain the sea level of the planet. From an economic and strategic perspective, the island is under the limelight due to the probable resources, which if extracted, can prove beneficial to others.

The vast reserve of rare earth minerals in Greenland has caught the attention of the big powers. Used in a wide range of industries such as transportation, defense, energy, health sector, chemicals and manufacturing sector, and electronics, rare earths are the most sought-after minerals. Greenland has now emerged as a new frontier for rare earths, and climate change has enabled its exploration in the southern part. 

On the other hand, Greenland is also aiming to tap some opportunities on its path. Since climate change and the Arctic grew in importance, particularly in the 21st century, Greenland has been attempting to accelerate its growth by attracting investments. The mining industry is thus poised to provide a conducive opportunity in that regard. Additionally, the tourism sector is being developed, given the newfound interest in Arctic tourism at a larger scale.

Greenland has been a strategic point since the Cold War, mainly due to US/NATO military establishments. The Thule Air Base is still being maintained by the US. The above-mentioned factors have continued to strategically place the island in the post-Cold War era as well. The Chinese and Russian moves in the Arctic have made the US rethink its strategy in the region. 

Approaching Greenland 

The location and the opportunities provided by Greenland make it indispensable for countries pursuing policies to stay relevant in the Arctic. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that China and the US are moving in this direction. 

Shenghe Resources, a Chinese firm, is the largest shareholder and strategic partner of the Greenland Minerals, an Australian firm operating in southwest Greenland’s Kvanefjeld Project. General Nice, a Hong Kong-based firm possesses mining rights in a potential iron mine in Isua. While China aims at the rare earths of Greenland, it has also extensively invested in the island’s communication and infrastructure projects. Huawei has partnered with Tele-Greenland to lay cables under the Arctic Ocean and establish communication lines across remote areas in the region. Beijing had also shown interest in developing and expanding airports in Nuuk, Qaqortok, and Ilulissat- a clear strategic move in the higher reaches of the Arctic. 

The United States, on the other hand, has got the approval of Copenhagen for opening a new consulate in Nuuk, where it is also expected to announce the setting up of the Agency for International Development Office. The recent announcement of $12.1 million aid to Greenland, is seen as an important step in gaining a tangible presence in the island. The aid is set to be earmarked for tapping the mineral resources, improving diplomatic relations, and boosting tourism. 

Washington recognizes that Greenland is that pivot in the Arctic, which enables a country to strengthen its footprint in the region. It would also help to reduce the dependency on China for rare earths. Certainly, there is a geopolitical angle to the US’s recent move, given Russia’s gigantic moves in the region and China’s active presence in the Arctic countries. Russia and Denmark (Greenland) claim the North Pole and the Lomonosov Ridge. The US as well as NATO is wary of Russian attempts of militarization in the Arctic. 

Denmark’s perception 

It is important to note that Greenland is the only ‘Arctic card’ for Denmark, without which it would be a North Atlantic country. In 2019, President Trump had proposed to buy Greenland. The proposal evoked negative responses from both Copenhagen and Nuuk. He also canceled an official visit to Denmark, after the Danish Prime Minister said that the island was “not for sale”. Though the current aid is not aimed at “buying” the island, it has evoked a similar negative reaction in Copenhagen. It is wary of US’s actions with some Danish politicians even calling it an “insult”. Nevertheless, the government is keen to allow American investments for the benefit of Greenlanders. 

However, Denmark, being an American ally, is clearly against Chinese strategic investments in Greenland. It vehemently opposed the proposal to expand the three airports. 

Greenland on the other hand welcomes investments from both US and China but is skeptical about the returns these countries expect. Undoubtedly, such investments provide it with an option to diversify from its dependence on Copenhagen for economic needs. 

Conclusion

Greenland provides a rationale for the states to come into the Arctic. Conversely, the need to become an important stakeholder in the Arctic geopolitics, gives the states, a rationale to be present in Greenland. We can expect a contest where economic tools would be put into use, more than military might. If the Cold War in the Arctic becomes a reality in the near future, one can expect Greenland to be a frontier.

About the Author:

Rashmi Ramesh (ORCID ID: 0000-0003-1597-6375) is a Ph.D. scholar with the Science Diplomacy Programme, School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, INDIA.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.