The Great Leap North
June 21, 2021. Sunny blue skies, 40 degrees Fahrenheit onshore, 35 degrees in the water, and celebration is in the air as thousands of tourists and foreigners of Inuit descent join the locals in the streets of Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk. The whole world’s elite has flown in during the past few days to pay tribute to the 18,000 inhabitants of the northern capital.
Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is here, accompanied by Crown Prince Frederik, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Danish members of Parliament. Also invited are numerous representatives from NATO, Norden, the ICC, Nordefco, the European Union, the United Nations, and special emissaries for northern issues from a plethora of multilateral organizations. European, American, and East Asian heads of state have each brought along their own cohort of multinational CEOs: ExxonMobil, Alcoa, Chevron, RioTinto, DONG, Cairn, Statoil, Areva, and many more: they’re all standing up today to pay tribute to history in the making.
On June 21, 2021, Greenland, if activists have their way, may become an independent nation after 300 years of Danish colonization, and in this context of promises and widespread enthusiasm, critical questions remain: Which foreign power has been able to earn the newborn state’s trust in the past decade and through which means? What are the implications of these celebrations for the Arctic regional and world order?
In September 2009, the twentieth anniversary of the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Alexander Stubb, then foreign minister of Finland, remarked: “the Arctic is evolving from a regional frozen backwater into a global hot issue.”
Indeed, with the Arctic’s melting, regional states have had to adapt to the changing terrain – how to foresee, prevent and channel the new uncertainties and threats resulting from the ocean’s melting. In order to avoid being caught off-guard, they quickly poured millions of dollars into state-of-the-art research programs aimed at rethinking economics, diplomatic strategies, and security effects at the national and regional levels – Rovaniemi’s Arctic Centre is one of those strategic programs. In this context of change, the critical issue was to figure out what the global geostrategic dynamics of the post-polar world would be.
This is precisely the idea that Alexander Stubb addressed in his keynote speech in Rovaniemi: “we are facing a new Arctic era,” he concluded. With maps centered on the North Pole instead of Europe becoming more commonplace, Foreign Minister Stubb showed from a practical perspective how the geopolitical order will be completely reworked in the post-polar world.
For instance, in the past, strategists aimed to control the Heartland(Central Asia) and the Rimland(Eastern Europe) in order to ensure world domination, adopting theories based on a two-dimensional geographical reasoning that excluded the Arctic. From all these great twentieth century thinkers’ perspective, the world was purely horizontal because it was framed at its northern and southern extremities by impractical polar areas.
In simpler words, the Arctic has long been deemed unpractical and unnavigable rendering it insignificant in grand strategy. However, because of climate change, that landscape is about to be altered. In fact, by 2035, when much of the Arctic will be ice-free seasonally, traditional twentieth century grand strategies will be challenged or even irrelevant. Indeed, since the Arctic Ocean is expected to be “militarily practicable” year-round by 2035 (as a recent US Navy study shows), the area would not only be an area of commercial activity, but also a power projection theater with stakes like no other.
The key to ensuring one’s security through global preemptive or coercive actions will be to understand that all regional challenges are interconnected in some way. They form a network of regional nodes, with a few that are more critical than others. In other words, global leadership in the twenty-first century seems to begin with the ability to project hard and soft power just where it matters.
So, if global domination in the twenty-first century world is more than ever about applying pressure at critical points, the Arctic will be critical. The Arctic ties the whole Northern Hemisphere together, where all superpowers are located. And yet, America's political credibility, and, consequently, its regional leadership are not unrivaled.
Greenland is about to matter. Three times bigger than Texas, Greenland is an nearly autonomous province of the Kingdom of Denmark that sits at the northern tip of the planet, making it the Arctic’s control tower.
Greenland and the surrounding area is thought to sit on anywhere from 90 to 200 billion barrels of oil, 50 to 150 billion metric cubes of natural gas, and large amounts of gold, diamonds, copper, iron ore, and many other strategic resources. By comparison, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela’s oil reserves are measured at around 250 billion barrels. But Greenland is a tricky case.
Indeed, if the country wants to be fully independent, it has to generate enough revenues to give up on the annual subsidy of 3.2 billion kroners (over $500 million) supplied by Copenhagen. Given that Greenland’s economy actually has no industry beside fishing and scant tourism, this figure currently accounts for more than 90 percent of Greenland’s GDP. Therefore, Greenlanders have no choice but to tap into their underground wealth in order to finance their independence. And so the Greenlanders will do so, no matter what the most convincing environmentalists tell them.
However, even if Greenland is an autonomous province with full control over the management of onshore and offshore natural resources, it still cannot exploit its two main and most profitable resources: rare earth elements (REE) and uranium.
Under the last administration led by far-left Greenlandic Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist, Greenland awarded 20 offshore oil exploration and production permits and more than 100 onshore mining concessions. Yet, production has not started in Kvanefjeld, the world’s second-largest rare earth elements and world’s sixth-largest uranium field. Located at Greenland’s southern tip, the Kvanefjeld field was awarded to GME, an Australian mining company, who has now been waiting for years to start digging up both metals.
Here’s the catch: Greenland needs REE money to finance its independence. But REE extraction implies extracting uranium at the same time, since both metals are inextricably mixed underground – for every gram of REE extracted, one-tenth gram of uranium is extracted too. Given that Danish Commonwealth law bans uranium extraction on Greenlandic soil, production cannot start at all. So, should Greenland opt out of the Commonwealth? Perhaps, but how can it finance such a move without the annual Danish subsidy?
That is where foreign powers come into play: in an attempt to benefit from the Greenlanders’ eagerness to become independent, many have lobbied Kuupik Kleist’s administration hard in the past years. Indeed, China has so greatly intensified its presence through industrial and diplomatic means in Greenland that Swedish analysts from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute have started branding China in 2012 as a “Near-Arctic state.”
Though lacking any formal territorial claim to the Arctic and any sort of public Arctic strategy, China has had an aggressive policy in the Arctic over the last decade. From its investments in icebreaking naval capabilities, to the exponential increase in Arctic research funding, and through diplomatic means developed in Greenland and Iceland, China has managed to become an unavoidable interlocutor at the Arctic table.
As China rose in the region, Europeans became lost in their environmental sentimentalism, and Russia was prone to grandiloquent announcements and spectacular jingoistic moves – like the planting of a titanium Russian flag under the North Pole’s seabed just outside Greenland’s waters in 2007.
And as for America, since right after World War II, the United States offered $100 million to buy Greenland from Denmark, it has, despite operating the Thule airbase, rested on its laurels (at best) in Greenland . At worst, it has actually neglected Greenland’s evolution and certainly the far-left former PM Kuupik Kleist in the past decade.
Quite significantly in the scheme of American policy planners’ failure to understand the aforementioned philosophical evolution in grand strategy thinking, Capitol Hill policymakers failed to fully account for Greenland’s evolution in their risk mitigation recommendations. In the past decade, blinded by some kind of liberal naivety, a large majority of risk analysts thought that China’s energy and development-related moves towards Greenland, Iceland, and even the Canadian Arctic were just regular expressions of a developing country with big energy needs.
What they failed to understand is that Beijing policy planners did not seek dominance in the Arctic just to quench their country's energy needs. Rather, China sees economic preeminence as an early step towards making tangible diplomatic and security inroads from military power projection in the region by mid-century. Indeed, by achieving strategic partnerships with countries geographically situated at the heart of the Arctic, China receives a critical long-term geostrategic advantage vis-à-vis the United States.
Even worse: because uranium extraction in Greenland by Chinese-backed companies have scared off some terrorism analysts who think Al-Qaeda, Iran, or North Korea might get uranium as a result, it is only now that some policymakers are concerned that a China-friendly Greenland might pose a great threat to US interests at large.
Therefore, provided with diplomatic and economic space in Greenland, Beijing has reinforced its Arctic capability by closing scientific research and private mineral deals. Betting on soft cooperation on indirect interests, Chinese lobbyists have managed to convince former Prime Minister Kleist that Beijing could be Greenland’s angel in the near future.
The Chinese question was undoubtedly a core issue in Greenland’s 2013 general election. Leading the opposition to PM Kleist’s Chinese-backed, pro-independence policy, Aleqa Hammond, head of the social-democratic party Siumut (“Forward!”), argued that China’s soft power domination over Greenland would be good neither for Denmark’s interests in Greenland, nor for Greenland itself.
Particularly, she accused Kleist of replacing the historic Danish domination with a Chinese economic colonialism. Yet, over its 30 years of dominance up to 2007, Siumut had always preferred partial autonomy to full independence. It is the historic electoral setback in 2009 that changed the game. Then seen as a nepotistic party that only protected Danish interests to secure its own, Siumut had been defeated by a motley coalition supported by Inuit Ataqatigiit ("Men and Solidarity"), Prime Minister Kleist’s radical left-wing pro-independence party.
According to Hammond and her allies, the Kleist administration, far from promoting the intransigent policy it promised in 2009, sold off natural resources and social stability to ensure the interest of foreign investors. By satisfying their every demand, Kleist thought he would be able to finance Greenland’s independence in a faster manner. For instance, the Kleist administration awarded operating licenses to foreign multinationals without subjecting them to outstanding taxes. Further, foreign multinationals were nearly allowed to import thousands of workers from abroad and apply those workers' native labor laws, despite working on Greenlandic soil. The government had already imported some Mandarin-language teachers for kids and adults to be able to eventually interact and integrate foreign Chinese workers amongst the Inuit population.
The key to Greenland’s future lies in its ability to ensure its political independence. That is, finding allies that could support it at the regional and world tables, particularly when Greenlandic uranium and REE exploitation are poised to destabilize the Chinese monopoly on those markets. China now supplies more than 90 percent of the global market for these materials, but with the development of Kvanefjeld alone, China's REE global market share could fall below 50 percent by 2020. Indeed, one of the reasons why China was so proactive in Greenland was to protect its monopoly in REE.
In 2013, Aleqa Hammond, who is the daughter of a seal hunter from remote northern Greenland, managed to operate a renovation of Siumut’s ideological matrix. In interview after interview, she explained how a virtuously financed independence would be possible through a sort of economic affirmative action towards Danish and Nordic energy and mining companies. She has, for example, promised to lift the ban on uranium extraction.
Yet on the other hand, she showed the public how the influx of at least 5,000 Chinese or Polish workers to man the country's mines would put the Greenlandic culture, social structure, language (Kalaallisut, with 50,000 speakers), and even direct security in jeopardy.
Aleqa Hammond eventually gathered on March 12 almost as many votes on her name alone than all of PM Kleist’s Inuit Ataqatigiit candidates together – a peculiarity of Greenland’s single-round uninominal yet proportional electoral system. Associated with the notorious pro-uranium party, Atassut, and with the nationalistic Kalaallisut (the Greenlandic language)defenders, Partii Inuit, she was inaugurated on April 5, becoming Greenland’s first female prime minister.
Now that there has been a change in power and the Arctic is entering the spotlight, maybe the United States will succeed where the Europeans have failed: flexing its muscles and curbing China’s increasing influence in the far north with the help of an independent and NATO-backed Greenland. “I really want to see Greenland become independent in my lifetime, and right now, I think I will,” recently elected PM Aleqa Hammaond said in an interview with Greenland’s main television channel KNR. Perhaps, then, the world’s elite will gather in Nuuk to see the red-and-white Erfalasorput wave independently in the Greenlandic skies on June 21, 2021, after all.