Greenland’s Airport Saga: Enter the US?

A NASA P-3B research plane on the ground at Thule Air Force Base, Greenland [Photo by NASA]
This week, the ongoing story about the planned expansion of three airports in Greenland, including the facilities in the capital of Nuuk, saw another twist after the United States Department of Defence (DoD) released a single page statement of intent confirming American interest in potential investment in Greenlandic infrastructure with an eye to improving US and Greenlandic security interests.

The statement, signed by US Undersecretary of Defence for Policy (USDP) John Rood at the American air base at Thule in far-northern Greenland, stated that Washington would weigh the possibilities of ‘strategic investments’, including those which may serve ‘dual military and civilian purposes’. These potential projects, it was added, would serve to improve both American and NATO capabilities in the region and be to the benefit of the United States, Denmark, and ‘the people of Greenland’.

The US Embassy in Copenhagen released the statement via its Twitter feed, and there was a swift positive response by the Danish Foreign Ministry which praised [In Danish] the US statement as creating ‘very interesting potential for future cooperation’. The Danish Foreign Ministry remarks included a statement by Vivian Motzfeldt, the Greenlandic Minister for Education, Culture, Church and Foreign Affairs, saying [In Danish] that the US declaration was welcome and expressing hopes for future US investment in Greenland’s airports. Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Anders Samuelsen was also supportive, saying that stronger US-Denmark defence cooperation in Greenland would contribute to the region remaining a ‘low tension area’.

The emerging US investment offer comes right on the heels of an agreement struck in Nuuk between Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kim Kielsen, and Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen to allow for Danish financial support for the expansion of the three airports, including runway lengthening, at Nuuk along with the facilities at Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. Said agreement appeared to be designed to waylay a bid by a Chinese concern, namely the China Communications Construction Company (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe youxiangongsi 中国交通建设有限公司) or CCCC, to invest in the airport refurbishments.

However, the Denmark-Greenland deal was denigrated by one of the coalition partners, Partii Naleraq [In Danish/Greenlandic] which announced that it was no longer supporting the Kielsen government, leaving the coalition short of a majority in the Greenlandic parliament. Thus far, an alternative coalition partner has yet to be confirmed, leading to questions about how long the current administration will be able to remain in office without another election being called.

Danish government representatives had long been troubled about the strategic ramifications of large-scale Chinese investment in Greenland, and the addition of an American offer would also seem to suggest that Washington is also increasingly concerned about the expansion of Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ trade interests into the Arctic. Sino-American relations have been on a steady downward trajectory since the Trump administration began, marred by an escalating dispute on bilateral trade which reached a new nadir this week with the US announcement of additional tariffs on Chinese goods worth a reported US$200 billion.

Greenland, including the Thule base, is a vital strategic area for the US security interests given growing concerns about Russian militarisation in the Arctic, including in the Nordic region. In next-door Iceland, the US military has returned to the old base facilities at Keflavík, with plans to use them as a launch point for submarine-tracking aircraft, after withdrawing from the country in 2006.

Air Greenland plane at Kangerlussuaq Airport, Greenland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
While the Danish, and now the potential American, offers of financial support for the Greenland airports can be seen as a setback for Chinese commercial interests in the region, However, the final status of the projects is far from settled, given the precarious status of Greenland’s minority government, the specifics of any future foreign investment in airport infrastructure, and the fact that China has many other actual and potential policy avenues to Greenland, as well as the greater Arctic region.

As a recent article in the online journal Cryopolitics explained, Beijing has investment interests in numerous other parts of the Arctic, including mining in Greenland and oil and gas projects in Russia as well as natural gas investment in Alaska. The unsuccessful bid by the CCCC may simply be a small bump in China’s widening ‘Ice Silk Road’.

As well, the US statement of intent was very short on specifics regarding both the investment amounts, (and types), as well as the timeframe. It was also stressed that the statement was not legally binding ‘under international or national law’. Caution therefore may be warranted about the particulars of the US statement, given the very ambiguous status of current US Arctic policy under President Donald Trump, as evidenced by no specific Arctic policy statements being made since his administration began, as well as other Arctic related projects, such as new American icebreakers for the country’s Coast Guard, at considerable risk of being buried in red tape. What can be said, however, is that US interest in further Greenland investment is another sign of the growing profile of the island in both Arctic and international affairs.