‘No Sale’: How Talk of a US Purchase of Greenland Reflected Arctic Anxieties

Nuuk, Greenland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
[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.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

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.