Welcome to Over the Circle (OtC), a site dedicated to news, politics and foreign policy in the Arctic region. With the ongoing changes in the circumpolar north due to climate change and ice erosion, the region has become the focus of much greater attention on a global scale, and as a result the politics of the Arctic are also undergoing rapid changes. This site will look at the politics of the ‘Arctic Eight’ (Canada, Denmark [Faroe Islands / Greenland] Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States), but also of non-Arctic states, including in Western Europe and East Asia, which are also quickly developing their own Arctic diplomacy policies.
Among the major topics in Arctic politics are economic development, environmental concerns, energy (oil and gas), shipping and new Arctic sea routes, and new and existing regional organisations, (like the Arctic Council). While there is much discussion about the opening of the Arctic, this site will examine regional and international news with an eye to examining just what this ‘opening’ really entails.
[This post was co-written by OtC editors Marc Lanteigne and Mingming Shi]
At first, the story read like something out of a fanciful Monopoly game. US President Donald Trump, according to a recent article [paywall] in the Wall Street Journal, had repeatedly stated an interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark and had asked aides to look into the logistics of such a move. Although the article, and subsequent reporting, suggested that the President’s inquiries were not always serious, simply the fact that the idea had been mooted touched off a flurry of debate and criticism, especially since a hypothetical buying of Greenland directly from Copenhagen has been a legal impossibility for more than a decade.
In 2009, Greenland, an Arctic nation of 57,000 people and part of the Kingdom of Denmark, was granted self-rule from Copenhagen, including greater autonomy and the right to self-determination, with many government portfolios being transferred to Nuuk. Denmark retains oversight of Greenland’s foreign policy and defence, but many Greenlanders, and local politicians view independence as a question of when as opposed to if. Thus, any discussion about a transfer of Greenlandic sovereignty would require a US dialogue with Nuuk, not Copenhagen, and although relations between Denmark and Greenland have been difficult at best, the prospect of becoming a US protectorate holds little allure for Greenland’s people.
Both the Greenlandic government and the country’s foreign ministry published short statements after the story appeared saying that while Greenland was certain open to international investment, the nation was not for sale. Danish politicians were also aghast at the possibility of the US ‘buying’ Greenland, with one former Danish Prime Minister likening the whole idea to a tardy April Fool’s joke. From a strictly strategic viewpoint, however, US administration of Greenland would make sense, given not only the island’s considerable mineral wealth, including metals, gemstones and rare earth elements (REEs), the latter resource currently being dominated by China, but also freshwater and sand.
Moreover, Greenland occupies a prime strategic location in the Arctic as the region opens up to greater commerce. It was for that reason that the prospect of purchasing Greenland periodically surfaced in American policymaking circles, including in the 1860s, as the purchase of Alaska was being undertaken, when the US State Department also suggested that also acquiring both Greenland and Iceland would provide the United States with numerous new resources. Then in 1946, as the cold war began to solidify and the Soviet Union was seen as a threat to North Atlantic security, the Truman government offered Denmark US$100 million in gold for Greenland, and although the offer was not accepted, the US was allowed to place two military bases on the island at Sondestrom and Thule, with the latter facility still in operation.
Great power politics also form a major part of current US policies towards Greenland, but China has now assumed the role of regional rival. Chinese firms are partners in two impending Greenlandic mining projects, namely an REE, uranium and zinc mine under development at Kvanefjeld and a zinc mine planned at Citronen Fjord in Greenland’s far north. A Hong Kong-based firm, General Nice, also oversees the site of a potential iron mine at Isua.
Attempts by Chinese firms to invest in Greenland infrastructure projects have so far been less successful, including an attempt by a Chinese construction firm to bid on airport refurbishment projects which was thwarted by Denmark, with prompting by Washington, in 2018 after Denmark agreed to partially underwrite the project, a move which prompted criticism in Greenland about Danish government overreach. There was also an unsuccessful 2016 attempt by General Nice to obtain an abandoned US-built naval facility at Kangilinnguit (Grønnedal), which was halted by Copenhagen out of fears of offending Washington.
Other possible Greenland investments by Chinese interests on the horizon include bidding for onshore oil and gas blocks and freshwater purchases. As well, Greenland may also factor into Chinese preparations to engage in maritime shipping via the Central Arctic Ocean once conditions permit, which may be sooner than anticipated. At present, the Arctic wing of China’s Belt and Road project has centred on energy and shipping in the Northern Sea Route connecting Asia to Europe via Siberia, but Beijing’s 2018 White Paper on Arctic policy suggested that China was preparing to make use of other emerging sea routes, including potentially over the North Pole.
China’s Greenland interests have not only caused consternation in Denmark, especially over whether Chinese investments may negatively effect Greenland’s future economic sovereignty, but the US has also begun to look at China’s Greenland activities as a looming threat to American Arctic policy. In this year’s Annual Report to Congress on Chinese military activities by the US Department of Defence, Chinese current and potential investments in Greenland were singled out as a possible Trojan horse for future military activities. As well, in a bloviating speech at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Roveniemi, Finland, in May this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to elevate China, alongside Russia, as a primary challenger to regional security. In theory, for the US to obtain Greenland would effectively remove the issue of Chinese investment there.
As a recent book, How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr, detailed, the United States has had at best a questionable track record in its policies towards its overseas holdings, and the controversial handling of Puerto Rico by the Trump government since the onset of that island’s economic crisis and post-2017 hurricane recovery, also provides little reassurance. As well, much of Greenland’s domestic politics are viewed as incompatible with American policy, including the island’s welfare state system, as one Greenlandic policymaker noted upon hearing of Trump’s purchase idea.
More crucially, the stance of the Trump government on climate change, which is essentially one of complete denial, is completely out of step not only with Greenland but also with the entire rest of the Arctic. At the Rovaniemi Arctic Council meeting, the event ended with no formal declaration for the first time, caused by a refusal by the American delegation to acknowledge climate change as a regional concern.
For Greenland, the climate change ‘debate’ is no debate at all, amid mounting evidence that altered weather and ice patterns in and around the country are having considerable environmental, socio-economic and even psychological effects. The Greenlandic Ice Sheet, which covers eighty percent of the island with an average thickness of over two kilometres, is losing mass at an accelerated rate in the last few decades, and this summer’s record hot temperatures in Europe were responsible for further ice melt in Greenland.
At the same time however, the loss of land and sea ice has opened up numerous possibilities for economic development in extractive industries, including mining and fossil fuels as well as fishing and potentially shipping. Thus it has been in Greenland’s interest to court many potential economic partners, including China, as the island’s economic potential continues to unlock. American sovereignty over Greenland, especially under current US foreign policy directions, would effectively end any hope of Nuuk attaining full control over its international and trade affairs, which for many Greenlanders is the proverbial brass ring. In the end, a much more plausible and viable outcome of Greenland independence may be non-alignment, albeit including a special relationship with Denmark.
Canada will be returning to the polls on 21 October and just before the election date was confirmed, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quietly published a long-awaited, and according to some commentators, long-delayed, updated set of policies for the Canadian North.
The big question, however, is how the updated policy framework will address the myriad domestic policy concerns in the Canadian Arctic, as well as the growing number of regional and international challenges facing the region, such as the possibility of the high north becoming an arena for strategic competition. The 2019 Framework included a forward by Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, who noted the documents were developed with extensive contributions from northern actors, including provincial and territorial governments in addition to Indigenous peoples.
The objectives of the new plan are expected to be carried out between now and 2030, with a specific set of goals and principles outlined as priorities for the Canadian Arctic. The ten principles incorporated the need to be inclusive in various policy decisions affecting the Arctic, and the requirement that Indigenous Persons and northern communities should specifically be engaged.
The goals in question are to ensure the health and wellbeing of Arctic Indigenous peoples, to develop infrastructure with the objective of closing income gaps with the rest of Canada, improve the strength of Arctic communities, to improve the understanding of the Canadian North, protect Arctic ecosystems, support the ‘rules-based international order’ of the Arctic in the face of various challenges, defend the Arctic and its peoples, and support the ongoing process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Peoples. In order to address these goals, there were specific calls for combatting regional poverty and health risks, developing sectors such as fishing and tourism for economic growth, and improving northern education.
For example, Yukon College in Whitehorse is making preparations to become the platform for Canada’s first Arctic university in 2020, with Ottawa pledging C$26 million (US$19 million) in March of this year to build a new science building touted as the ‘cornerstone’ of the nascent Yukon University. The environment also factored extensively in the Framework’s goals, with policies included to promote sustainable development and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Another major Canadian research facility, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), had its official opening last month.
Included in the report’s promises to improve infrastructure in Arctic Canada was the stated intent to provide ‘fast, reliable, and affordable broadband connectivity for all,’ including in the country’s northern regions. The question of internet access in the Canadian North has been a delicate one, especially considering that quality standards for connectivity are considered as having been neglected in the three Canadian Arctic territories (Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon). None of these territories have to benefit from access to the types of unlimited data services found in the south, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CTRC).
The large territory and small populations of the Arctic territories have offered a special challenge for the construction of modern internet networks, resulting in services far more expensive as compared those of southern cities. As well, telecommunication networks in the Canadian North have been widely considered fragile and prone to accidental shutdowns, with Yukon being especially plagued by internet failures of late.
One potential external partner for the improvement of the Canadian Arctic’s internet capabilities, however, has considered controversial, at best. In July of this year, the Canadian division of China-based firm Huawei announced it was seeking to partner with Ice Wireless in Inuvik and Iristel, a voiceover internet protocol (VOIP) provider in Markham, Ontario, to provide high-speed internet access to seventy communities across the Canadian Arctic and Northern Québec. The announcement has since drawn criticism given the current difficult state of Sino-Canadian relations since late last year, primarily due to the diplomatic and economic fallout from the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver at the behest of the United States, which is seeking to try her for attempting to circumvent US sanctions on Iran.
Critics have also expressed reservations about the security implications of the Huawei deal, as well as the potential of a monopoly being created. The Canadian government has also been wary of making a decision on whether to potentially include Huawei in Canada’s overall fifth-generation (5G) communications infrastructure, at least until after the upcoming federal election.
From a more regional-level vantage point, the Framework took note of the need for Canada to address changes in the Arctic which are ‘the product of both climate change and changing geopolitical trends,’ and called for better Canadian representation at various Arctic organisations, including representation by Arctic populations themselves. Related to this was a call to better define Canada’s far northern maritime areas and boundaries, possibly a nod to the Northwest Passage (NWP), which Ottawa maintains is internal Canadian waters, (a point specified in the report).
Since the beginning of this year, the United States has been pressing an alternative view of the NWP as international waters, and there is also a dispute between the two countries over a wedge-shaped area of the Beaufort Sea near the border between Alaska and Yukon. Canada also has a land dispute with Denmark / Greenland over the sovereignty of Hans Island which lies between Greenland and Nunavut’s Baffin Island, and the issue of the boundary between Canada and Greenland in the Lincoln Sea also remains unresolved.
The report also noted that there was a need for better protection by various military and security agencies of the Canadian North as well as to better promote ‘situational awareness’ as well as ‘maritime domain awareness’. Unlike recent Arctic defence documents released by the United States, which have been terse in their assertions that both China and Russia represented direct challenges to regional security, the Canadian report did not focus on specific country-based threats in the Arctic. There was mention in the ‘International Chapter’ of the new Arctic policy that Ottawa must strengthen relations with ‘with Arctic and key non-Arctic states and actors,’ with a special focus on the North American Arctic, (Alaska and Greenland).
The ‘Safety, Security, and Defence Chapter’ also pointed to the need for various levels of cooperation to ensure the safety of the region, commenting that even though ‘Canada sees no immediate threat in the Arctic and the north,’ challenges related to climate change, increased maritime traffic, enhanced search and rescue requirements, and the changing legal landscape of the region did require attention. There was also the note that there were ‘both Arctic and non-Arctic states expressing a variety of economic and military interests in the region’, although again there were no specific governments which were singled out. Finally, the budgeting for many of these proposed improvements was estimated at C$700 billion (US$527 billion), including for education, investments, various types of research, and environmental monitoring.
The documents have so far garnered mixed reviews from commentators, with one analysis noting a lack of specificities, given that the report had been in preparation since late 2016. Other critiques were sceptical of the timing of the report’s release so close to a federal election, and also suggested that many of the recommendations given were not new and that further details were required, regarding how some of these goals would be successfully achieved. There was also the bigger question about how Canada, like other Arctic nations, would successfully balance development and environmental protection. Two territorial leaders, Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod and Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq both described the report as representing a preliminary platform upon which to build. In the meantime, as the curtain rises on what is already proving to be a rough-and-tumble election season, it remains to be seen the degree to which Arctic affairs will play a role in the campaigns.
Under the administration of Donald Trump, US Arctic policy has experienced wild swings ranging between near-neglect and a more recent and rapid focus on countering perceived great power competition from China and Russia. At the same time, the US has sought to make a concerted effort towards avoiding the issue of climate change in the region, despite mounting evidence of the adverse effects of warming temperatures, melting ice and shifting weather patterns. During the past week, however, another facet of US policy towards the Arctic was seemingly revealed, suggesting the region was potential property to be purchased.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, President Trump had more than once expressed an interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark, even going so far as to ask his staffers to investigate the possibility of making an offer to the Danish government, presumably during a planned meeting in early September with Denmark’s new Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
President Trump subsequently confirmed that he wanted to look into the possibility of purchasing Greenland, referring to the process as a ‘large real estate deal’, and going as far as to tweet a photoshopped image of a golden Trump Tower in the middle of Nuuk. For both the Greenlandic and the Danish government, as well as many international commentators, the situation was far less amusing. Greenland’s Foreign Minister, Ane Lone Bagger, stated that while Greenland was very much open for business, it is not for sale, and Prime Minister Frederiksen called the entire notion ‘absurd’, noting that, ‘Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.’ Similar sentiments were expressed by Greenlanders themselves.
Not only did Mr Trump’s musings about purchasing Greenland reflect a complete disregard for Greenland’s population (57,000 persons), but also demonstrated an archaic and condescending neo-colonialist viewpoint, as well as considerable ignorance of Greenland’s current political status. Greenland is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and was granted self-rule and the right to self-determination as of 2009. Greenland is simply not eligible to be ‘sold’ by Denmark.
The United States had previously expressed interest in purchasing Greenland, including in 1867, when Washington was in the process of procuring Alaska from what was then the Russian Empire and talk circulated about possibly adding Greenland (and Iceland) to the list of US acquisitions in the far north. That plan was unsuccessful, but the administration of Harry S. Truman tried again in 1946 with an offer of US$100 million in gold in exchange for Greenland, only for Washington to be rebuffed. However, the United States did negotiate rights shortly afterwards to use Greenland to conduct military operations to counter the rising threat from the Soviet Union, and the US Air Force maintains a base at Thule in Greenland’s far north.
In the abstract, American sovereignty over Greenland could be viewed as an important strategy, given the country’s resources, including metals and minerals, (including rare earths), and fossil fuels, and its strategic location in the Arctic at a time when concerns about Russian military activities in the North Atlantic are growing. As well, China has emerged as an economic player in Greenland, given its involvement in developing mining projects and future investment on the island. The Arctic may be emerging as another arena in what is shaping up to be a solidifying zero-sum game between Beijing and Washington, as illustrated by the ongoing trade conflict between the two great powers.
Mr Trump’s reaction to the Danish government’s dismissal of the Greenland purchase idea was the very definition of sour grapes. Not only did he abruptly cancel an upcoming Copenhagen meeting, but he also criticised Prime Minister Frederiksen’s views about the absurdity of purchasing Greenland as ‘nasty’ and suggested that she had offended the whole of the United States. He then subsequently tweeted that Denmark’s financial contribution to NATO was insufficient, reinforcing his longstanding views of the organisation as being unfair to US interests.
While it remains to be seen whether this situation could turn into a serious diplomatic rift, the affair is still more proof that the Arctic policy chasm between the United States and the other Arctic governments may be widening, as already evidenced by the aftershocks of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pugnacious and poorly received speech at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi in May of this year, as well as the considerable differences between Washington and the other seven Arctic governments regarding the urgency of the effects of climate change in the region. This week, a Nordic Prime Ministers’ Meeting in Reykjavík successfully concluded with a joint statement on sustainable development and the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement on the environment. As well, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir recently confirmed that she would not meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits Reykjavík next month.
Clearly, the ‘buy Greenland’ fiasco has also underscored the degree to which Greenland, and indeed the Arctic as a whole, has assumed a much greater strategic concern to many states, including the US. As Greenland continues to ponder its political future, another important factor may be its ability to successfully navigate regional affairs at a time when the Arctic is under more scrutiny than it has been for decades.
Addendum: Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir subsequently did meet with Mr Pence during his tour of Iceland, however the visit was controversial due to both the large size of the Vice-President’s security detail, as well as remarks he made to reporters suggesting that the Icelandic government had declined to join China’s Belt and Road trade initiative which were later disputed.
The book examines various facets of China’s international policies and strategies using different levels of analysis, including which political actors within China are contributing what to foreign policymaking, international relations and comparative political theories, and specific case studies.
Chinese relations with key Arctic governments, including Russia, the Nordic region and the United States are included, as well as a specific, updated section on Beijing’s emerging regional diplomacy both in the Arctic and in Antarctica.
This week has seen abnormally high temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere, including in Canada, the US, and much of Western Europe, as well as heat records broken in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Although higher-than-average summer temperatures are starting to become the norm in many parts of the world, what is also causing specific concern this month is the degree to which the Arctic has been affected.
In addition to increased heat levels being recorded closer to the Arctic Circle, many parts of the Arctic are now being affected by dangerous forest fires, up to one hundred separate wildfires according to reports earlier this month, which are pushing up levels of carbon dioxide kicked into the atmosphere. It was estimated that about fifty megatonnes of CO2 from Arctic fires were expelled into the air just during the month of June this year, with smoke from these conflagrations visible from space.
These events in the far month are adding to the warnings about the accumulating effects of climate change, and how the Arctic is being specifically distressed. According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), ‘averaged as a whole, the June 2019 global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest for June since global records began in 1880 at +0.95°C (+1.71°F).’ The end of July may produce further records, and in the Arctic, signs were appearing that the rate of summer melting of the Arctic ice cap as of mid-July were approaching levels seen in 2012, the year that the lowest September sea ice levels were recorded to date,
Both the European and North American heatwaves, along with those in the Arctic, have been viewed as an even louder warning bell about the phenomenon. Moreover, a report published this month by the journal Nature argued that current warming levels have not been seen in over two millennia and certainly not on the scale as seen today. This would punch a sizeable hole in a theory, often used by deniers, that the current climate situation has been part of a longstanding and natural cooling and warming cycle.
Nevertheless, the government of one major power, and Arctic country, the United States, continues to ignore the mounting evidence of climate change while attempting to play up its ‘positive’ environmental record. At last month’s G-20 meeting in Osaka, the United States once again found itself largely alone in refusing to call for greater international action against carbon emissions and other pollutants contributing to climate change.
Since the start of the summer, forest fires have ignited in Yukon, where the situation was only recently declared to be stabilised, as well as across the border in Alaska, where over two million acres (809 thousand hectares) have been affected with the state experiencing temperature hikes at twice the international average. Given less attention has been the spate of wildfires currently plaguing much of Siberia, including the regions of Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Yamal, as well as in Yakutia, affecting a reported 2.3 million hectares. Smoke from these fires was reported in Tyumen, a city far to the west of the fire zones and located more than 2500 kilometres from Irkutsk.
Parts of the Nordic region have also been put on fire watches and alerts, with Sweden having to contend with forty separate fires, while the whole of the region has also experienced higher than 30ºC temperatures this month. Throughout the region, alarms have been raised about the amount of carbon dioxide and methane being released by the wildfires into the atmosphere, and the longer-term effects of black carbon and other particulate matter landing on ice and snow and accelerating the melting processes, contributing to ‘polar amplification’.
Even Greenland has been put on notice for wildfires, two years after the first major incidents of such fires on the island were seen in the Kangerlussuaq region, driving home the fact that the Arctic was now bearing much of the brunt of changed weather patterns and temperature levels. This time around, a short-lived blaze was spotted in the area of Sisimiut in the south-western part of Greenland earlier this month, affecting safety conditions on the island’s Arctic Circle hiking trail and raising concerns about the effects of both regional fires and the heat wave in Europe on Greenland’s already vulnerable ice sheet. The last such accelerated melt of the ice sheet took place in 2012, and there is the question of what the melt this year will mean for Greenland and the surrounding area.
Danish specialists, via the country’s Polar Portal service, suggested that Greenland had already lost about 160 billion tonnes of surface ice just during the month of July. In a statement by the United Nations World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), forecasts suggested that the hot air currently in Europe, which originally arrived in the region via North Africa, will potentially be pushed to the north-west, over Greenland, by the end of the month, placing still more pressure on the ice sheet.