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Why China, Russia and the US are Competing over Greenland


In the past few years, the geopolitical importance of Greenland, a semiautonomous island belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark, has been growing, and therewith the world powers’ interest in it. This is due to its strategic geopolitical location and natural resources. Particularly, China, Russia, and the United States are competing over influence. Due to a self-government agreement from 2009, the Greenlandic government is in charge of all affairs except its foreign, security, and defense policy, which is controlled by Denmark. The challenge is to satisfy regional and US demands without antagonizing foreign investors such as China. A change in the power dynamic and influence in Greenland could have severe security implications for Denmark.

China’s growing interest in Greenland is stated in its Arctic Policy White Paper, which promises Chinese contributions in the areas of scientific research, mining, and infrastructure linked to the development of the Arctic Sea routes. Firstly, the Chinese government has attempted to launch a research station and a satellite receiver station. Secondly, Chinese state-owned companies are involved in the Greenlandic mineral sector, for instance, the Kvanefjeld Rare Earth Element (REE)-uranium project. China is the world’s largest rare earth producer, accounting for 70% of global production in 2022. REEs comprise 17 elements that are used in the production of, inter alia, phones, electric cars, and wind turbines. Thirdly, Chinese companies have proposed to invest in airport construction and buy an abandoned naval base in Grønnedal. However, these projects were blocked by Copenhagen due to Washington expressing concerns that Chinese involvement in these areas could be a potential threat to US security. Furthermore, Greenland’s access point to the Arctic Sea routes could decrease China’s dependence on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Suez Canal. Lastly, China is one of the biggest export markets for fish, which represents Greenland’s largest industry, with sales having regained the level from before COVID-19.

Russia’s main concern in regard to Greenland is the US’ growing influence and presence. The Arctic is particularly important for the Russian military as it is the location of its nuclear fleet. Therefore, Russia needs to ensure access to its main entry point to the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Iceland. In the past years, Russia has also increased its military presence in the Arctic, particularly focusing on the Nagurskoye fighter aircraft base. This base is located on the Franz Josefs land archipelago, which is within quick reach of the north-easternmost parts of Greenland and the US Thule Airbase. Additionally, Russia is interested in Greenland’s rare earth and uranium preserves.

The main reason why Greenland, also referred to as “America’s backyard”, is geopolitically important to the US is its significant role in US national security. In 1946, the US bid $100 million to buy the island, which was turned down by Denmark. However, the US was granted long-term access to military sites after its forces protected Greenland from Nazi Germany during the second world war. Located in Greenland is Thule Air Base, the world’s northernmost US military base. Thule Air Base is able to monitor all of Russia’s missile activity, as well as incoming missiles from China and North Korea, and can alert US decision-makers in the Pentagon within 60 seconds. Additionally, it plays a key role in monitoring the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom-Gap, which refers to the two areas of open ocean between these three islands, which are Russia’s and China’s current main entry points into the Atlantic Ocean. In order to strengthen its diplomatic ties with Greenland, the US reopened its consulate in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in 2020, which had been closed in 1953 due to budgetary limitations. In 2019, Greenland’s importance was highlighted again when President Donald Trump proposed to buy the island from Denmark, which was promptly rejected.

Nevertheless, the US-Danish relationship is challenged by the expectations for Denmark to safeguard US objectives on the island. Firstly, Denmark was pressured to increase its military spending towards the island’s defense to support US objectives, dedicating 1.5 billion Danish krone ($230 million) to the monitoring of Greenland. Secondly, Denmark is expected to minimize China’s influence despite the importance of foreign investment for Greenland’s economy. Thirdly, Denmark worries that increased US presence and influence over Greenland have the potential to spark a conflict between the US and Russia. Ultimately, while Denmark wishes to strengthen its alliance with the US, it is also concerned that it could undermine its own interests in Greenland.

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