Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Greenland in US-Denmark-China Relations

Insights from Jonas Parello-Plesner.

Mercy A. Kuo
Greenland in US-Denmark-China Relations
Credit: NASA

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Jonas Parello-Plesner executive director at Alliance of Democracies Foundation and senior fellow (non-resident) at the German Marshall Fundis the 206th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Explain the strategic significance of Greenland to the United States. 

For the United States, Greenland has since the Second World War and especially during the Cold War been a military strategic asset. In 1941, the U.S. agreed with Denmark, represented by its freewheeling Ambassador Kaufmann in Washington (Denmark was under German occupation from 1940), to U.S. bases on Greenland, a territory part of the Kingdom of Denmark. For the U.S., Greenland was a necessary pitstop for out- and ingoing long-distance flights as well as a first line of defense for detecting planes and missiles approaching the U.S. territory from the north. Since the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force has maintained the Thule Air Base in Northwestern Greenland.  

Under President Trump, the U.S. administration has also advocated a more forceful Arctic policy framed by the concept of great power competition, which in short wants to keep Russia and China at bay in the Arctic.

And to China.

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Greenland is part of China’s broader outreach into the Arctic and sees itself as a stakeholder in line with its growing global ambitions. China became an observer state in the Arctic Council in 2013. In 2018, China officially outlined its Arctic Policy White Paper showing the distinct interest the region draws. In line with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s priority on the Belt and Road initiative, the Arctic has been included in this global network under the banner of a “Polar Silk Road.”

China’s interests in the Arctic and Greenland combine the geostrategic to scientific research, shipping opportunities through the Northwest Corridor due to climate change, resource extraction and infrastructure development. Greenland is very resource-rich endowed with rare earths, uranium, oil and gas adding to the attraction.

In general, the Kingdom of Denmark construction has led China to approach Greenland through the authorities in Copenhagen but with an increasing independent outreach to Greenlandic home-rule politicians in Nuuk as well. Chinese companies are involved in several projects in the Greenlandic mineral sector with Citronen Fjord zinc exploration in Northern Greenland and the Kvanefjeld Rare Earth Element -uranium project in Southern Greenland.

Analyze Denmark’s leverage in U.S.-China competition over economic development in Greenland.  

Before President Trump shone the media light on Greenland and Denmark, few outside the Kingdom of Denmark cared or knew about this political construction. 

Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark but an autonomous territory with increasing self-rule. In practice, it means defense and foreign policy is run from Copenhagen but the right to resource extraction is under local competence. In later years, that distinction has given rise to a tug-of-war between Nuuk and Copenhagen on uranium and rare earths perceived in Copenhagen to fall under security policy and in Nuuk as similar to other mineral extraction under local control. The government in Copenhagen has increasingly prioritized these issues and kept a keen eye on possible Chinese investments with security considerations in mind. 

For the Greenlandic decision-makers, the main priority is attracting foreign investments as a means toward economic development and increased economic independence from grants from Denmark. Former Premier Aleqa Hammond exemplified that approach, stating last year that “Greenland has no trouble including Chinese companies in the development of our infrastructure. If it results in high quality, delivery on time and price and perhaps even more Chinese tourists in the future, it is only to be welcome.”

These two approaches clashed about the expansion of airports in Nuuk, Ilulissat and Qaqortoq where a Chinese state-owned enterprise, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), was initially shortlisted in early 2018 but later the project was classified as touching upon national security. Subsequently, a funding model excluding CCCC was found with Danish intervention. It shows the increasingly important role China plays inside the Kingdom of Denmark for deliberations between Denmark and Greenland. 

The U.S. has given new priority to the Arctic, including Greenland. That is mostly good news for the Kingdom of the Denmark. The security cooperation between Denmark and the U.S. is already strong in NATO and on a bilateral basis. The question is how much this renewed U.S. priority will also spill over into an increased economic willingness to invest. 

For Greenlanders, the bottom line is that notwithstanding geopolitical turbulence, they would like to see investments in their territory sooner rather than later.

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What is Copenhagen’s long-term strategic objective for Greenland’s future?  

Greenland is a strategic asset for Denmark in its relations with the U.S. due to the basing arrangement. The inclusion of Greenland in the Kingdom of Denmark secures Denmark an Arctic geographic presence as well. In this sense, there is an interest to keep Greenland as part of the Kingdom. 

On the other hand, there has been a long-standing Danish policy – also as atonement for the Danish colonial past in Greenland – of gradually expanding Greenland’s autonomy and, if based on the will of the Greenlandic people, also allowing for a move to full independence. Although, in such a case, Danish budgetary assistance to Greenland would cease. 

Thus, there is a contradiction in the Danish approach to Greenland’s future status. The increased presence of China and Chinese companies highlight that dilemma between security and U.S. ties versus support for local decision-making and autonomy. 

Assess U.S. relations with the Arctic Council vis-à-vis China and Russia’s growing presence in the region. 

The current U.S. administration has elevated the Arctic among its priorities. Under the headline of “Looking North,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May at the Arctic Council gathering, laid out U.S. priorities underscoring that the U.S. is an Arctic nation. 

The administration is less concerned about curbing climate change and instead focuses on seizing the new opportunities in the Arctic from new sea-lanes and resource exploration.  

On China and Russia, both relationships were framed in terms of great power competition to a degree not seen before in the Arctic. 

On China, Pompeo sounded alarm on transferring Chinese investment practices “ensnared by debt and corruption’ from other regions to the Arctic.

On Russia, Pompeo acknowledged their legitimate Arctic interests but spoke out against ongoing militarization and its effort to make the Northern Sea Route its own restricted zone with demands on other nations requesting permission to pass through.