View of Tasiilaq, the coarse town in eastern Gronland. Image: Bernd Hildebrandt, Pixabay
The island nation between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean votes on a new government. Massive geopolitical interests are in the background
Gronland will elect a new government tomorrow, Tuesday, and the vote will be watched with interest internationally, though for different reasons in each case. The Gronlanders themselves may be interested above all in a self-determined, good life. The country’s geographic location in the Arctic, where the coarse powers meet, can both help and hinder this process.
A Mercator map is misleading when it comes to the Arctic situation. A polar map or Google Earth’s globe view shows more clearly where the military and/or economic interests of Arctic states clash. The following is a clarification.
When Donald Trump wanted to buy Gronland two years ago, it was an occasion for endless jokes. As is well known, nothing came of it. The offer may have been crude and not timely, the interest is as relevant today as it has been for decades: The U.S. needs control of Gronland, to the extent it can just. For it is only from Thule Air Base in northwest Gronland that they have a view of potential objects coming from Russia.
It is considered disturbing that Russian aircraft from the ruffled Nagurskaya base on Franz-Josef-Land could reach the airbase. Gronland is also one side of the so-called Giuk Hatch (Gronland-Island-UK), the passages that allow Russian submarines to reach the U.S. East Coast, if they are allowed to. That is why the "unsinkable aircraft carrier Iceland" with its increasingly used NATO base in KeflavIk a part of the US defense strategy.
"Open for business, but not for sale" the Gronlanders decided at the time Trump. What has become of it? In June 2020, the U.S. opened its consulate in the capital city of Nuuk. Interestingly, the premises are located in the building of the Arctic Command, i.e. the Danish Coast Guard for Gronland and the Faroe Islands. There was also a $12.1 million donation from the U.S. to Gronland, to be provided primarily in the form of consultant services and project funds.
This was viewed critically by some Danish politicians, others pointed out that under the Igaliku agreement, the U.S. had to pay rent for its base, which it has not done to date. A controversial ie was recently the service contract for civil services on the base, which is called Pituffik in Gronlandic.
The long-time Gronland contractor had lost it to a U.S. competitor in a bidding process under new conditions. So Gronland also lost money. The criteria have now been revised so that only a Gronland company has a chance of meeting them, and there is an agreement between Gronland and the U.S. to that effect.
Thus a gross obstacle to cooperation has been cleared out of the way. Even though officially the government in Denmark still determines the aubenpolitik of the kingdom of three countries, the Rigsfællesskab.
Denmark is caught between its partnership with the U.S. and NATO, its own interests, and the knowledge that there are strong aspirations for independence in Gronland – how strong, the elections will show. Even though Denmark has to support Gronland annually with a block grant of the equivalent of more than 500 million euros and other funds, there is still an interest in keeping it in the network.
Gronland’s exit from the Rigsfællesskab, the "Reichsgemeinschaft", would not be noticed in everyday life in Denmark, but it would be a loss of 98 percent of the land area. Denmark is no longer in the Arctic Council, on a par with Russia and the USA – Denmark would no longer be represented there. And for NATO Denmark would still be about as important as Belgium, only without headquarters.
At the very least, the blatant US interest has made it clear in Denmark that the Gronlanders are not just supplicants. The Faroese, economically already much more independent from Denmark than Gronland, could use a departure of Gronland as a reason to say goodbye, too. Neither Gronland nor the Faroese are EU members.
Denmark, under prere from Gronland, has submitted a very far-reaching territorial claim in the North Polar region to the UN Base Commission. It was recently rude towards Gronland beyond the block grant. Denmark is contributing to the construction costs of the airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat, where transatlantic flights are to land in the future. But Danemark also wants to redevelop and maintain the current transatlantic air base at Kangerluaq, because it is also used a lot by NATO.
According to the original cost calculation, this was to be abandoned when the facilities in Nuuk and Ilulissat were completed. Denmark is also investing the equivalent of around 200 million euros in military infrastructure on Gronland – in surveillance drones, radars (including on the Faroer), satellite surveillance and analysis. These instruments are also intended to serve civilian purposes, such as fisheries monitoring and sea rescue. Voluntary military training on Gronland will also be offered as a new service. Gronlanders, however, are not obliged to military service.
For Russia, Gronland is initially a part of the U.S. partner Denmark. Russia competes with Denmark, among others, for the continental shelf at the North Pole. The territorial claims that the two countries have submitted to the UN Continental Shelf Commission overlap widely.
Just now Russia has made new quantities and submitted new data, and then the overlap could go even further, up to 800.000 square kilometers. This is about ground treasures, which could become interesting once the sea ice shrinks.
Since the early 1990s, the non-EU country of Gronland and Russia have been negotiating fishing rights on an annual basis: quotas off Gronland vs. quotas in the Barents Sea. Russia recently appointed an honorary consul in the Gronland capital. Otherwise, direct relations between Gronland and Russia have so far been minimal.
Recently, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a video showing three Russian submarines emerging from the Arctic ice almost side by side. The spectacular action was part of an extensive exercise with several components on Franz-Josef-Land. In Norway, this was interpreted as a response to the temporary stationing of four U.S. bombers at the Ørland base. Franz-Josef-Land, however, is also the site of Nagurskaja, the base closest to Thule Air Base.
China has massive interest in the Arctic (Polar Silk Road)") and now owns two rough icebreakers, one of them built in its own country. China is involved in several projects in the Russian Arctic, for example in Nowatek, the liquefied natural gas production on the Yamal peninsula.
The Northeast Passage along the Russian coast is becoming more and more difficult to navigate due to climate change, which enormously shortens the way for Chinese transports to Europe. This sea route was last discussed as an alternative when the Suez Canal was blocked by the cargo ship Ever Given.
China, however, is already planning further ahead – for a sea route directly across the pole. The fact that this will soon be possible, at least temporarily, was demonstrated by the smooth sailing of the Polarstern in the summer of 2020.
China’s commitment to Gronland has been thwarted so far. Thus, Danemark prevented the sale of the former Grønnedal base to a Chinese investor by using it again itself. The interest of a Chinese consortium in building an airport in Gronland was extremely controversial, and in the end the company did not submit a bid at all.
And in the application for approval of the mining project in Kuannersuit (Danish Kvanefjeld), it also plays a role that the Chinese Shenghe Holding with 12.5 percent are the largest shareholder of the Australian Greenland Minerals. Rare earths and uranium to be mined in Kuannersuit.