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07/09/2019 | Situation Reports - Greenland: A New Frontier of Great Power Competition

Alessandro Gagaridis

SUMMARY - Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a cold and remote terrain covered by ice with a population of just 56,000 inhabitants.


At a first glance, it may seem a country holding no strategic or economic significance, where no foreign powers would be interested in establishing a presence. To some degree this was true until now, but the situation is changing and for proof one needs look no further than the parliamentary elections of April 24. As a matter of fact, a combination of climatic and political factors is pushing Greenland to diversify its political and economic partners, thus attracting the attentions of external powers that are seeking to exploit its resources and establish a foothold on the island.

This process has just recently begun; it will only accelerate in the future, ultimately generating new competition among great powers (notably China, the United States, and Russia) over this vast territory. And while this struggle will remain economic and diplomatic in the immediate future, over the long term it could also take a military dimension.


The first thing to consider in order to understand Greenland’s shifting political orientation is the country’s history. The Island hosted Scandinavian settlements since the Middle Ages, and it officially became a Danish territory in 1814. It still remains formally part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but it enjoys considerable autonomy after being granted home rule in 1979 and then self-government in 2009, following a vote the previous year. Currently, Greenland has its own executive that has power over virtually all domestic affairs, but its foreign and defense policies still depend on Denmark. Moreover, Greenland is also financially dependent on Denmark, whose subsidies (around 500-600 million USD per year) represent around 60% of the island’s annual budget.  Still, Greenlanders often debate the merits of full independence from Denmark, and this has been a central theme in the latest elections. In general, everybody agrees that independence should be achieved; but there is less of a consensus on the timing, and especially on how to ensure the island’s financial self-sufficiency so as to make it sustainable.

The electoral results are significant in this sense. Siumut, the main party in the previous government coalition, emerged as the preeminent political force with 27% of votes. The second-largest party is Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), its ally, which obtained a 25.5% share. Finally, in third place is Demokraatit, the preference of roughly 20% of the electorate.

All of these parties are generally in favor of independence and plan to attract foreign investment in order to make the move more financially viable, particularly in the country’s promising mining sector. The melting of the ice cap due to global warming is opening some very profitable investment opportunities for mineral extraction. Greenland holds vast ore deposits of uranium, zinc, and much-needed rare earth minerals, which are essential in the high-tech industry and have multiple applications in various fields like telecommunications, green energy, and even military hardware. But apart from the economic sphere, a greater foreign presence in Greenland would also have notable geopolitical consequences.


The electoral results are good news for foreign investors, in particular for China and its mining firms. Kim Kielsen, head of the Siumut party and incumbent prime minister of Greenland, has promoted closer economic ties with the PRC, even leading a delegation to China in November 2017. For its part, Beijing has multiple reasons to be interested in Greenland. The most obvious is that it needs new sources of minerals to supply its domestic industries. In a neo-mercantilist logic, Beijing also wants to secure access to the island’s rare earth mines to preserve its quasi-monopoly on their production. Finally, Greenland is located in a very interesting geographic position. China is showing more and more interest in the Arctic, both as a source of natural resources and as a maritime passage. As climate change continues to melt ice in the Arctic, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) becomes a more and more viable option for trade between Asia and Europe/North America. At present, navigating the NSR remains too dangerous, but the situation will change in the coming decades, and China is aware of it. Consequently, Beijing is working to boost its presence around the North Pole: it released its first official Arctic policy paper in January, where it openly states its plans for creating a “Polar Silk Road”; moreover it qualifies itself as a “near-Arctic state” and is increasing  its activities in the area. Taking this all into consideration, it is clear that Greenland holds strategic relevance for China, since it’s located mid-way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic, and close to the American continent. Establishing a strong presence on the island is therefore a major interest of Beijing, as Greenland can be a source of precious ores, a trading outpost proximate to the rich North American market, and a logistics base for supporting its various interests in the Arctic. This will take time, but the Chinese are already involved in various projects, especially in mining and infrastructure development (like airports). They are also building a scientific research facility and a satellite station in Greenland.

China’s presence in Greenland also raises security concerns. As often happens when the PRC is involved, some worry that economic engagement will ultimately lead to the establishment of military or dual-use facilities. In this context, it is notable that in 2016, the Danish government blocked the acquisition of an abandoned US naval base in Greenland by a Chinese firm. The establishment of Chinese military bases on the island remains a remote possibility for now, but it will become more and more likely in the future as the PRC increases its presence in the Arctic and takes a more assertive international stance. This is something that would have considerable geopolitical consequences, particularly for the United States. The spectre of a hostile power controlling Greenland and using it as a base to attack the mainland American territory dates back to WWII (with Nazi Germany) and remained throughout the Cold War with the USSR. It is now reappearing with China in the role of primary antagonist.

The possibility that Beijing will leverage its growing influence over the island in the military realm remains a long-term issue at present. However, there is also a shorter-term security issue at stake in Greenland, and it concerns Russia. It’s no secret that relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated in recent years. In the context of renewed US-Russia tensions, which includes direct military provocations, the North Atlantic once again becomes a highly strategic theatre for both powers. This is even more true when one considers Russia’s efforts to modernize its navy, notably its submarine fleet. Russian subs have performed forays in the Atlantic to a level unseen since the end of the Cold War, and this means that the GIUK gap is once again becoming a strategic chokepoint.

The maritime passage delimited by Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom (hence its name) is essential for both Russian (and potentially Chinese) naval units entering the Atlantic, and for NATO to monitor their movements, especially those of SSBNs (missile-launching submarines carrying nuclear warheads). Consequently, Greenland is also becoming a strategic territory, as controlling it facilitates crossing the GIUK gap. Therefore, if competing powers like China or Russia extended their influence over the island, US national security would be significantly impacted, even more so in our current era of high-tech weaponry like stealth aircraft and hypersonic missiles, whose deployment in Greenland would put North America’s territory under immediate and direct threat. Of course, this remains a hypothetical scenario, but if current trends of mounting great power rivalry continues, and considering that climate change will make the Arctic more crowded, this cannot be ruled out in the long term.


Considering the electoral result in Greenland and China’s willingness to establish a greater presence on the island for economic and strategic reasons, it is likely that the PRC will be increasing its presence there and in the wider Arctic in the near future. For Greenland, Chinese engagement would be beneficial in a general economic sense: Chinese investment would allow the country to develop and diversify its economy so as to obtain the means to afford independence from Denmark. However, there are also concerns on the island, notably over excessive indebtedness, possible impacts on the country’s delicate ecosystem, and the preservation of the local identity and lifestyle (particularly in the optic of an inflow of Chinese workers).  Still, these problems can be managed, and most importantly there are few other options if independence is to be achieved. As such, it is likely that China and Greenland will grow closer in the coming years, potentially paving the way for the latter’s complete secession from Denmark. It is difficult to assess the likelihood of this event given unknowable interim economic factors, but it is definitely a realistic scenario over the intermediate term (10-15 years).

An independent Greenland where China maintains a strong presence is certainly not a scenario that everyone welcomes. First of all, Denmark would lose any formal power over its colony, and would have to rely on historical and cultural ties to maintain its influence and pursue its interests in the region. As a matter of fact, Copenhagen would lose its most important Arctic territory, and this would be a terrible blow for its ability to have a voice in the region’s affairs. The Faeroe Islands are also organizing a constitutional referendum (initially set for April 25, then postponed) that could pave the way to full independence. As a result, Denmark’s role around the North Pole and in regional institutions (especially the Arctic Council) could be reduced to zero in a decade or two, just when the area is becoming more economically viable and strategically important due to the effects of climate change. It is true that Denmark could still exploit indirect means and gain observer status in the Arctic Council, but nevertheless its ability to shape regional politics and pursue its interests will be severely undermined. The same logic applies to the EU, as the present influence in Arctic affairs that the bloc exerts through Denmark would also collapse.

Whether Greenland gains formal independence or not, its coastal waters are warming up, literally and figuratively, with potentially serious geopolitical consequences over the long-term.


**This article was originally published in May 2018. (Canadá)


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