U.S. President Donald Trump left the world puzzled when he proposed that the U.S. purchase the semi-autonomous region of Greenland last week — before abruptly cancelling a meeting with the Danish prime minister over her refusal to sell the region a few days later.
While Greenlanders have made it clear that the Arctic island is not for sale and most political experts deem the purchase unlikely at best, a number of things may be driving Trump’s interest in the region.
Several countries, including major adversaries of the United States such as China and Russia, as well as other members of the Arctic Council (of which Canada is also a member), have a vested interest in Greenland for reasons spanning political symbolism to control of a vast supply of minerals on the island.
Greenland, an autonomous region of the Kingdom of Denmark located between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, is dependent on Danish economic support. It handles its own domestic affairs while Copenhagen looks after defence and foreign policy.
The island has been a base for American military resources for a number of years, though Mikaa Mered a professor of Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics at the ILERI School of international relations in Paris, believes there’s a greater geopolitical significance to Trump’s proposal.
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“He wants to send a message strong message, notably to Russia and to China. He wants to say to Russia to China, ‘you can count on us for competition in the Arctic. We will not let you be the sole superpower’s presence with capacity in the Arctic,'” Mered explained.
Here’s who else has a stake in the future of the region, and why:
China’s interest in the fate of Greenland revolves around its business interests.
Greenland is rich in a number of minerals, but the greatest interest as of late has been in the island’s supply of rare earth minerals and uranium. China’s interest in Greenland comes from an Australian company by the name of Greenland minerals, according to reporting from Forbes.
Shenghe Resources Holdings, a Chinese mining company, is the Australian firm’s largest stakeholder with a holding of 11 per cent. Forbes reports that Shenghe is a leading producer of rare earths in China and acquired its stake in Greenland Minerals as a potential future source of a number of elements to be used in several technologies.
“When it comes to China that they’re interested in Greenland in particular in Iceland as well. China is in for the resources,” Mered added.
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A policy paper on the geopolitics of Greenland, produced by the University of Copenhagen in 2013, also notes that the Chinese enjoy a monopoly on rare earth minerals, which are a collection of metals used in everyday devices such as computer memory, DVDs, batteries, magnets. etc.
In 2013, then-President Barack Obama ordered the stockpiling of certain rare earth minerals as well as the reopening of mines that had been put out of business by Chinese competition, the report states.
“United States and China approaches the region in similar ways focusing on access to resources and transit to markets. This means the two great powers are aligned in their interests to be a part of the New North, but it also creates a clear competition between them on who gets access to what,” the authors of the report wrote.
In addition, Mered notes that China hopes to develop a presence in the Arctic, which it believes is the next frontier of international relations.
Russian interests in the future Greenland stem primarily from military ambition and political symbolism, Mered explained. He said that one option for Russia to expand its military presence is to occupy the North Atlantic waters located between Greenland and Iceland.
He explained that Russia’s Northern Fleet is located in the Murmansk regions of Russia’s offshore islands.
The only way they can get out of Murmansk is to go through the North Atlantic, he continued, which means going through the GIUK area — a Cold War-era concept deeming the waters between Greenland and Iceland, as well as the waters between the United Kingdom and Iceland, as a “geo-strategic frontier.”
The U.S., Mered explained, has updated its military strategy to ensure that Russia cannot expand its military capacity beyond its current headquarters in Northern Murmansk.
Russia is one of eight member countries of the Arctic Council, which also includes Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States. Several members of the Council are currently applying to assert ownership over certain regions in the Arctic, a Durham University diagram depicts.
“When it comes to Russia, there’s this whole matter of identity. Russia believes that the Russian Federation should go all the way up to the North Pole at least. They believe that that part of the Arctic between their coast and the North Pole is theirs, and they want to secure that,” he said.
Canadian interests in the Arctic island stem both from its own claims to Arctic territory and the relations of its own Inuit population to the Inuit population residing in Greenland.
Canada is one of several Arctic Council members currently applying for greater ownership in the Arctic, for both transportation and politically symbolic reasons.
From a transit perspective, as the ice in the Arctic melts, the University of Copenhagen report states that opportunities for the movement of goods are opening up in the Northwest Passage.
“As the ice of the Arctic Ocean melts and allows transit to Asia, Greenland’s position on the approaches to North America will become more important,” the report reads.
“In the Arctic, the United States has particularly focused on the role of access in the on-going discussion with Canada on whether the North West Passage constitutes international waters or is Canadian waters,” the report states.
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Furthermore, a symbolic link between Canada and Greenland exists through the Inuit-Canadians living in the territory of Nunavut, Mered notes.
“The people in Nunavut are Inuits, and the people in Greenland are also Inuit. We’ve already seen some calls from Inuit groups on both sides of the border to get them a greater integration. There have already been talks, reports and conferences on this topic of pan-Inuit-ism,” Mered explained.
If Greenland were, hypothetically, sold to the United States, it would likely put an end to that discussion. However, he notes that should Greenland declare full independence from Denmark in the future, calls for ” pan-Inuit-ism” could be intensified.