The coming scramble for Greenland

Now that the status of Greenland is a live political issue, I wonder if China will make its own play to acquire the world’s largest island before the US does:

It’s not just America who acknowledges the strategic importance of Greenland, either. Look no further than China, which has repeatedly attempted to gain infrastructure on the island.

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

I can only guess that the US put considerable pressure on the Danes to squash these Chinese attempts at gaining a foothold in Greenland.

More from Reuters:

The Arctic region sits at a geopolitical intersection of renewed rivalry between world powers China, Russia and the United States, and – with its melting ice cap – is a major symbol of the growing impact of climate change.

Russia has been raising its profile in the Arctic, creating or reopening six military bases shut after the Cold War ended in 1990, modernizing its Northern Fleet, including 21 new vessels and two nuclear submarines, and staging frequent naval exercises in the Arctic.

Russia also hopes that as the polar ice cap retreats, a shipping lane north of Russia will develop as an alternative route for goods from Asia to Europe.

The Trump administration last year began re-establishing the U.S. Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic, to counter a more assertive Russia. […]

China has also shown interest in Greenland after Beijing laid out its ambitions to form a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

Greenland, which plans to open a representative office in Beijing later this year to boost trade ties, has courted Chinese investors and construction firms to help expand three airports to allow direct flights from Europe and North America.

Greenland, which is three times the size of Texas, has vast mineral reserves including uranium and rare earths, as well as 50 billion barrels of still-untapped offshore oil and gas reserves, according to the article.

Can every American chip in $171 to “buy” Greenland?

I can’t claim credit for the idea, but it has been suggested that the US would not need to negotiate with Denmark over the purchase of Greenland. Instead, since the Danish constitution recognizes Greenland’s right to decide on its own independence, the US could simply bribe the people of the island to vote for independence from the Kingdom of Denmark.

The US could offer a generous subsidy of, say, a million dollars to every one of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants (this is roughly the population of Greenwich, CT) in exchange for Greenland’s permanently binding decision to part ways with Denmark and join the United States. Result: the US obtains more than 836,000 square miles of highly strategic Arctic territory at the low, low cost of $56 billion.

This is assuming of course that Greenland’s residents would agree to be acquired by the US for a million bucks cash per man, woman, and child. I don’t know about you, but it’s a deal I would take.

For the US, the transaction would be a no-brainer. One of the nice things about being the US in its current state of decline is that federal spending is already so nonsensically vast that a one-time payment of $56 billion barely moves the needle. For perspective, this amount is less than 1.4% of total federal spending in fiscal year 2018. Considering that the ongoing war in Afghanistan is bleeding the US of an estimated $45 billion per year, the cost of Greenland would equal about 15 months’ worth of military engagement in the country aptly described as the “graveyard of empires.”

In other words, the purchase of Greenland could be paid for by simply withdrawing from Afghanistan, or ditching some other equally worthless program within America’s sprawling, $4 trillion budget.

And considering that the US population is >327 million, the cost of Greenland would be a mere $171 per US resident, or a bit more than the price of a new pair of Apple AirPods. Get it while the getting is good.

Strategic real estate?

Why the hell would the US want to own Greenland? The semi-autonomous Danish territory is already home to the US military’s northernmost installation, Thule Air Base, which hosts a vital space monitoring system as well as a deep-water seaport and airfield. What would be the advantage in actually owning 836,300 square miles of empty, mostly ice-covered land?

I’m thinking there could be a strategic advantage, and it has something to do with this:

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

See also my previous post. If the US owned Greenland, it could put the kibosh on any attempted Chinese (or Russian) projects in the territory, no questions asked. That could throw a serious wrench in the “Arctic strategies” of America’s principal rivals in the decades ahead.

Besides, we’d have Canada surrounded.

You should’ve listened

GreenlandGreenland is suddenly all over the news. ‘Member that time, in December 2017, I wrote that the autonomous Danish territory “increasingly seems like a place to watch”? I ‘member.

Consider this your periodic reminder that in 2013, a controversy stemming from a proposed Chinese-backed iron ore project resulted in a change of government in Greenland.

Also, that China has tried to surreptitiously build a satellite ground station with military applications in Greenland’s capital (emphasis mine):

In May 2017, a project to set up a dual-use satellite ground station in Nuuk was “officially launched” on Greenlandic soil. The ceremony was attended by Cheng Xiao 程晓, the leading remote sensing expert in charge of the project, and a hundred Chinese visitors, including retired PLAN Rear Admiral Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet and NPC delegate between 2003 and 2008. A Beidou pioneer with a military background spoke at the event. The trip to Greenland was also used to fly the first Chinese remote-sensing drone in Greenland, the Jiying 极鹰 3. Although these events were reported in Chinese, the Greenlandic government remained unaware of the project months after its official launch. First mentioned in English on my blog, the project’s existence only became known to the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives after it was covered in a story by Andreas Lindqvist for the local paper AG, using my translations from Chinese sources. My full account, including the background of the main individuals in attendance, was posted in December.

The project illustrates the PRC’s double messaging in the Arctic. It was possible to organise a discreet event with a hundred participants in a town with a population of 493 by bringing them as a tour group. After the event, the tourists continued on an eight-day cruise of eastern Greenland. The tour was organized by Souluniq, a high-end tour operator long associated with communicating the importance of the polar regions to China’s national interest. The fact that the Chinese public for the event was a tour group attending this ‘launch’ as a patriotic-themed attraction, after lunch in a restaurant, was not disclosed in Chinese media accounts: indeed, the phrasing allowed readers to imagine a joint ceremony with the Greenlandic government, marking the actual start of the station’s construction. In fact, no date had been fixed for the actual construction of the station, a 7m antenna to be installed outside Nuuk; the required authorisation had not been sought with the Greenlandic authorities. To a Chinese audience, this was the launch of a major project in Greenland; for the locals, it was just another group of Chinese tourists. The project’s local partner saw its leader as just a fellow scientist, a perception that can help the project’s chances with the local authorities. Relevant Chinese audiences, on the other hand, have been made aware of Cheng Xiao’s key role in China’s polar strategy. A global network of satellite receiving stations is of strategic importance to the PRC; in the Arctic, one opened in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2016, to be followed by another one in Sodankylä, Finland. The dual-use Beidou satellite navigation system, in particular, needs more ground stations. The military aspect of the PRC’s polar strategy is clear to Cheng, who warns that “China’s threats come from the Arctic” and, according to a participant, discussed the military significance of the project during the Greenland tour. […]

Had it remained confined to the local domain, the project might have proceeded smoothly, perceived as cooperation between fellow scientists, then presented as a fait accompli for the approval of the local authorities. Its exposure, attracting the wrong kind of attention, could complicate its prospects. No further information on the project has emerged since its ‘official launch’ was revealed and it remains unclear when it will be built.

I referenced this project on my blog here.

A controversy

Remember that time a Chinese investment proposal toppled a Western government? Neither do I.

It really happened though — in 2013:

Talks to bring in Chinese capital to a large iron ore project weren’t even ripe for a deal when the outcry over a law facilitating the use of foreign labour led to fresh elections and a new cabinet that promises to revise that legislation.

Introduced by then PM Kuupik Kleist’s Siumut party and passed last December by the Greenlandic parliament, the so-called ‘large scale law’ (storskalalov) allows for foreign workers to be paid less than the local minimum wage of $14 per hour during the construction phase of large scale projects. Greenland’s untapped mineral resources, proponents argued, could help the country achieve economic self-sufficiency and eventually independence from Denmark, but cannot be developed without a workforce not to be found among the 58 thousand local inhabitants.

A large-scale fiasco

The law raised opposition both at home and in Denmark. Kleist’s government was accused of laying the ground for an invasion of thousands of Chinese workers that would amount to “social dumping”. Such large mining projects, some argued, would bring less benefits to the local population than traditional industries like fishing, which now accounts for 90% of the country’s exports. MP Nikku Olsen called the government’s policy towards foreign investment “very shallow and not thought through”, and led a breakaway faction of the ruling Inuit Ataqatigiit party to call for a referendum on the law. This triggered fresh elections that brought back to power the social democrats from Siumut, the dominant party since the first parlamentary elections in 1979, in a coalition with Olsen’s Parti Inuit and the centre-right Atassut. New PM Aleqa Hammond’s cabinet has stressed support for developing mining into the country’s main industry, vowing at the same time to revise the ‘large-scale law’ before next year.

Greenland (population 56,186) increasingly seems like a place to watch.

I see what you did there

A pretty astonishing story. When Beijing Normal University set up a research base in the capital of Greenland, it forgot to mention to its local partners that the facility would double as a satellite ground station with possible military uses. Just an oversight, I’m sure:

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October.

It would be a shame if something happened to that facility. What if chronic power outages or some mysterious, unfixable technical glitch put it out of commission, perhaps indefinitely? That would really be terrible. Just saying.

On a related note (report from last December):

China’s first overseas land satellite receiving ground station was put into trial operation on Thursday.

The China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station is above the Arctic circle, half an hour’s drive from Kiruna, a major mining town in Sweden.