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China failed its Arctic ambitions in Greenland

Sou-Jie van Brunnersum is a freelance editor and reporter working for Deutsche Welle (DW English) in Germany. 

NUUK, Greenland — Citing rising competition in the Arctic, exacerbated, in part, by China’s “increased efforts to garner influence in the region,” earlier this month, the United States announced its new Arctic strategy, and it will also be establishing an “ambassador-at-large” in the region. 

The European Commission, meanwhile, is expected to set up an office in Greenland in early 2023, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg calling presence in the region a necessity to counter Chinese and Russian interests. 

Both these measures come more than five years after Beijing published its Arctic strategy and pledged to build a “Polar Silk Road,” under its Belt and Road Initiative. The announcement had stoked major fears in Copenhagen and Washington about Beijing gaining a foothold in the resource-rich but sparsely populated Greenland — an island nation in the Kingdom of Denmark with a growing number of pro-independence voices.  

So far, however, China’s had no significant impact beyond the Russian Arctic, where it’s also been met with limitations due to concerns over COVID-19 and EU sanctions related to the invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, security and foreign policy circles continue to assume China’s presence in the Arctic is expanding — including in Greenland. That is simply not the case. 

Currently, the only direct Chinese presence in Greenland is of migrant workers in the fishing industry, according to Mariia Simonsen, Greenland’s spokesperson on foreign affairs and security. And their total number is estimated to be around 50 individuals working in factories along Greenland’s west coast, said Rasmus Leander Nielsen, the head of Nuuk’s NASIFFIK Center for Foreign and Security Policy and an assistant professor at the University of Greenland.  

As for China’s involvement in mining and infrastructure projects in the island country, such as the Kuannersuit uranium mining project and the Isua iron ore project, they’ve all been put on hold or terminated at the preliminary stage. 

“Overtime we have seen several mining projects that had Chinese involvement, but more U.S. interests in Greenland have kind of phased China out,” Nielsen said. He also acknowledged international concerns about the country securing a near monopoly on rare earth minerals in general, and cautioned against dependency. 

China had wanted to buy an old maritime station abandoned by the Danish defense as well, but that was “kind of vetoed by Washington,” he noted. Meanwhile, in 2019, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) withdrew its bid to build two airports — one in Nuuk and one in Ilulissat — for which Greenlandic politicians had initially shown interest in seeking Chinese funds. 

“China was pushed out of these two cases . . . I heard from reliable resources that the U.S. came up with an idea to make it quite difficult,” Nielsen said. “They called Copenhagen who then called Nuuk, basically.” 

According to him, the U.S. is focusing its Greenlandic efforts on soft diplomacy. “American diplomats in Nuuk hardly want to answer hard questions about policy security. It’s fairly obvious that one of the reasons is to keep China out of Greenland,” since Washington sees it “as part of the North American hemisphere.” 

Greenland is vital to U.S. national security, stressed Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, a professor at the Arctic University of Norway, citing significant U.S. military presence in the region during World War II and the Cold War, as well as the Thule radar station — essential to missile defense and space security.  

“There are clear limits to what the U.S. tolerates – which have been made clear to the Kingdom of Denmark — it doesn’t accept Chinese investments in Greenland,” Bertelsen said. 

The Danish foreign policy establishment is also very transatlantic and attuned to Washington, as those within it “often have little educational or professional experience outside (Europe) or another foreign language other than English,” he explained. 

Bertelsen also added that there was both “racism” and “a lot of postcolonialism in the Danish view of Greenland,” particularly when it came to Chinese investment. “It was evident in the media and in the general debate that there was this paternalist view — Greenlanders were seen as the Indigenous who would be ‘tricked by glittering pearls.’” 

Former Minister of Industry, Trade and Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq agrees that Chinese interests in Greenland have waned. 

“It’s very risky business to invest in mineral projects in Greenland . . . The Arctic is not as attractive as we want it to be,” and it’s filled with “impracticalities,” he said, adding that Greenland also demands high standards for working conditions and legal protection — to which China is no exception.  

Beijing has still been proactive in inviting politicians from Greenland to China, however, including Qujaukitsoq and the minister of mineral resources. “But that was a step too much for Denmark,” said Qujaukitsoq.  

And though Greenland would still like to attract Chinese investments, despite all hesitations, Qujaukitsoq expressed its ambivalence toward any affiliation with China’s human rights record, adding that he has reservations about potential debt traps, such as the case of Sri Lanka.

As for those living in Greenland, in 2021, Nielsen and the University of Greenland published a foreign and security opinion poll, which indicated the Greenlandic population didn’t find China to be a major threat. And though Greenlanders preferred good economic relations with China, they had a much stronger preference for closer ties with Iceland and Canada.  

Still, China does remain one of Greenland’s biggest trade partners today. And for now, it’s only the island country’s exports of seafood, ice, water and sealskin that bring the two closer together. In 2020, Greenland exported approximately 1.3 billion kroners of seafood products to China, according to Maria Simonsen of the Inuit Ataqatigiit and Greenland’s spokesperson on foreign affairs. 

But as the country “wishes to expand its markets to many more countries in Asia, Europe and the U.S. to avoid dependence on just a few partners,” Nuuk has “no plans of strengthening partnerships with China for the time being,” she added. 

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