Who will win the race to Greenland?

Who will win the race to Greenland?

Greenland is the golden ticket for any state that wants to advance into the Arctic. Previously at the margins of global attention, the sparsely populated state is resource-rich and strategically located. In order to achieve full independence, Greenland must cut economic ties with its former colonial power, Denmark. Renewed global interest could be a window of opportunity to secure foreign investment. With many suitors, which path will Greenland choose and why?

This summer, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added an unusual destination to his list of official visits: Denmark, where a meeting with Ministers from Greenland constituted a key agenda item. The utility of the charm offensive is clear: whilst long out of sight and mind, Greenland has recently re-entered the geopolitical agenda. The climate crisis is thawing the Arctic at an unprecedented rate, and previously inaccessible natural resources and shipping routes are emerging in a strategically well-placed territory. Greenland is located firmly in the Arctic Ocean and could be a key ally for any state that wants to gain a slice of the pie.

As part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland’s foreign and security policy is still managed by the Danish government, and every year Denmark provides copious amounts of structural funds to support Greenland’s economic development. However, the link between Denmark and Greenland is still marked by post-colonial complications, such as accusations of racism and forced ‘de-Greenlandisation’ of Inuits historically. In addition, modern Inuits seem to have less in common with Danish society than ever before, which further weakens the connection.

With a strong desire for greater independence and domestic challenges of climate change, rampant socio-economic problems and disappearing traditional livelihoods, Greenland needs a new, bolder vision to rid itself of Danish influence and stand on its own feet. In recent years, they have gained some Danish concessions on foreign and security policy, but in order to completely break the ties, they would need economic independence to replace Danish funds. Renewed global interest in Greenland could be a window of opportunity to do so. 

Who are its new suitors and what can they offer the Inuit nation?

Old Friends: The US

The path well-trodden is often the easiest. Greenland shares strong historical ties with the US as it is a key Danish ally. The US has therefore had a natural entryway to influence in the past century, notably through the Thule military base in northern Greenland. However, American interest waned following the Cold War, where transatlantic security became less of a priority. The US has only recently renewed its interest in Greenland and this is mainly due to Sino-Russian aggression in the Arctic. Thus, now as before, the US mainly sees Greenland through a lens of security. It has avoided investing in Greenland directly, instead forcing the Danish government to outbid China on a number of key contracts, rather than doing so themselves. In extension, the US has less of a coherent, visionary strategy for the Arctic as opposed to merely reacting to whatever China does; as late as 2019, the American Arctic policy was described as ‘borderline negligent’. This is far from the bold vision that Greenland desperately needs, and while capable, the US has not yet been willing to commit further beyond attempts to stop Chinese advances and symbolically re-opening its consulate in capital Nuuk.

New Kid on the Block: China

If Greenland is looking for cash, Chinese companies with seemingly endless state aid and resources could be a great option. Additionally, choosing China could symbolise a newly independent Greenland to the Inuits – one that forges its own path and defies its former colonial power. In more pragmatic terms, playing out the super powers could also increase the prize money. Wanting to strike while the iron is hot, Greenland recently revealed plans to open consulates in China in 2021. In recent years, Greenland has allowed Chinese companies to excavate and research in its underground. China considers itself a ‘Near-Arctic State’ and is keen on extending its sphere of influence. It has invested heavily in research missions and business links, providing a serious opportunity for Greenland’s ambitions to free itself of Danish subsidies. Conveniently, these investments fall within the realm of Greenland’s prerogative on economic policy. However, the commonalities may also end there. In terms of democratic values, China and Greenland have little in common, as opposed to Denmark and the US. Next, engaging with the Chinese when the US is a close geographical neighbour could also exacerbate tensions. Avoiding securitisation of its territory is a key priority for Greenland, which is a small nation with virtually no military. This is a delicate balancing act that Greenland must learn to juggle, wary of what and how much it allows China to pursue.

The Outlier: EU

The EU has the funds, the location and the value set to match Greenland’s ambitions, but still lacks a visionary Arctic strategy. Before Brexit, Greenland was known as the only country to ever have left the EU in 1985, but relations have been close and prosperous since – the Union was target for 93% of Greenland’s exports in 2010. The EU has consistently supported Greenland with education and structural funds through its status as an Overseas Territory of the EU. However, whether Greenland likes it or not, the Arctic region becomes more and more securitised due to its enemy neighbours like the US and Russia. The EU is still a dwarf on security policy compared to these states, and does not currently have the military capabilities nor will to expand in this direction. Britain’s departure from the EU could be an opportunity for the Union to expand its defence and security policy, but it still has some way to go. However, with internal issues like Brexit, immigration and the diminishing rule of law, the Arctic is the least of concerns for the Commission. When it is ready to engage, however, the EU may be a welcome ally. Its inner market, ambitious climate policy and less aggressive security policy are all directions that Greenland has previously shown interest in pursuing

Looking ahead

Greenland is facing multiple directions as it forges its own path for the decades to come. This is a blessing, but also a curse: It will need to strike a balance between economic development, security, protecting its precarious environment and traditional livelihoods. Right now, it seems that none of its suitors will be able to offer the whole package, which will require Greenland to carefully pair allies and policies. This could prove a momentous and overwhelming task for a civil service with little foreign and security policy experience and a population the size of a small town. However, it also could provide confidence; paired with a strong determination for independence, Greenland could be on the way to steer its own course. It would do well to consider its options thoroughly.

Categories: International, Politics

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