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Trump’s Greenland Interest Puts Strategic Importance of Arctic in Spotlight

With the melting of polar ice caps, China and Russia have their eyes on exploiting the Arctic as a maritime trade route.

The harbor in Tasiilaq, a town in East Greenland. (Image Credit: Ray Swi-hymn/Flickr)
The harbor in Tasiilaq, a town in East Greenland. (Image Credit: Ray Swi-hymn/Flickr)

The leader of Denmark may have rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer this month to purchase Greenland, but the Arctic region to which it belongs will only grow in strategic and economic importance.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a bit of a geographical misfit. Located in North America, it’s an autonomous region of Denmark, a European country located some 1800 miles away. The sparsely-populated region was colonized by the Danes roughly three hundred years ago.

For decades, Greenland has pushed for greater autonomy. And in the coming years, it may seek independence. As Greenland drifts further away from Denmark, global warming is adding to its economic and strategic importance. With the melting of polar ice caps, the Arctic is emerging as a maritime shipping route that China and Russia aim to use. In January 2018, Beijing released a white paper outlining the creation of what it calls the “Polar Silk Road,” leveraging the faster access it provides to Europe and Russia and exploiting the region’s energy resources.

Greenland itself also has the potential to emerge as a significant source of rare earths and hydrocarbons. It has an estimated 50 billion barrels equivalent of offshore oil and gas.

Its location is also strategic. It proximate to Canada and the United States and has been home to a U.S. airbase since the 1950s.

As Aaron Mehta and Valerie Insinna at Defense News note, the location of the U.S. air base in Thule, Greenland provides valuable radar coverage, enabling the United States to track both interncontinental ballistic missiles and low-Earth orbit satellites. Naval facilities there also would play an important role in wartime.

China has made an effort to gain a foothold in Greenland. In 2016, a Chinese mining company attempted to purchase a former U.S military base. Denmark rejected the offer on grounds of national security. In 2019, the Chinese-state owned construction giant, the Chinese Communications Construction Company, withdrew bids to construct two airports in Greenland after having been shortlisted for the projects. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon was able to convince Denmark to fund the projects, providing Greenland with an alternative to Chinese government financing.

Greenland is still very much a country in play. The region’s foreign affairs ministry tweeted this month that Greenland is “open for business, not for sale.”

As Greenland distances itself from Denmark, there may be ample opportunity for China to step in and fill the void.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

Urooj Tarar covers South Asia and pivot states for Globely News. She previously worked for the English-language edition of Daily Pakistan.

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