When last month President Donald Trump announced that the US should buy Greenland, that sounded like an absurd joke. In reality, what seemed like yet another odd moment for the presidency is actually a clear attempt of the US to enter a new Great Game which has the Arctic as the main playing ground.
As global warming becomes increasingly evident, the ice caps are melting faster than ever before; the effects are already devastating, but they are also putting Greenland back on the foreign politics agenda of major powers. As the ice melts, new natural gas and oil deposits in the Arctic are becoming accessible, and new sea routes are opening.
In 2014, the first ship not escorted by an icebreaker crossed the Northwest Passage. Nowadays, cargo ships are able to cross through the passage for several weeks a year and by 2040 (and according to some experts, even before), the polar route is expected to be completely open for more than two months each year. The consequences on global trade are immense, as the route naval route between Canada and China is 40% shorter compared to the Panama Canal route. The Arctic route will likely reduce the strategic importance of both the Panama an Suez canals, causing significant knock-on effects on the political stability of Middle East and Central America.
The Russians have long been the main power in the Arctic sea, with the largest fleet of icebreakers, 32 in total, 6 of which nuclear powered (the US has only 1 icebreaker functioning, the USS Polar Star). Moscow is also investing in modernising the fleet, build new bases or modernise existing ones, such as the ones on Novosibirsk Islands or in Murmansk, near the border with Finland. The strategic importance of Murmansk is confirmed by the so-called Murmansk Transport Hub, which includes new roads, railways and ports on the west side of the Kola Bay. This is one of the biggest state-backed infrastructure project in Russia and by far the biggest in the Arctic.
Building a modern fleet of icebreakers, or new transport hubs in the far North is an expensive business, which can take years and eat up several billions of dollars from the US defense budget and taxpayers' money. On the contrary, using diplomacy to secure presence in Greenland may be a quicker solution.
This is a similar approach that China is taking, and with success. Beijing’s presence on the island can be seen via Greenland Minerals, an Australian company focusing on mineral exploitation projects in which Shenghe Resources Holdings is the largest shareholder with a 11% stake. Greenland Minerals is quickly establishing itself as the mining jurisdiction in the area and the catalyst of geo-political tension. Last spring, during heightened trade tension between US and China, president Xi Jinping paid a visit to a mineral processing plant in the southern part of the island.
Greenland is not the only island China is interested in. Faroe Islands are keen to get into the game, and have just recently opened a national representation office in Beijing within the Danish embassy. Huawei is finalizing plans to bring 5G to the archipelago, and the Chinese government has also been funding language courses on the islands. The Faroe archipelago is located in a very strategic naval choke point in the so-called GIUK gap between Greenland, Iceland and the UK; while the area is not as critical as the Northwest Passage, it is still a very busy naval route which China may be aiming to influence, thus shifting the geo-political balance of the region and causing frictions with the UK.
In this context, Trump’s suggestion to buy Greenland does not sound so farfetched – if anything, it was a clumsy approach to a very complex and strategic geo-political and environmental issue. The decision to open a US consulate on the island has sent another clear message to China a Russia: the US wants a slice of the Arctic cake.
The main question stil remains: in a world where the climate emergency is having very tangible and dramatic effects on our daily lives, will the new Arctic imperialism accelerate the decline? Unfortunately, we all know the answer.
Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, Eliott & Thompson, 2016