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Foreign Policy

Explaining Trump’s Greenland Attraction

Sep 19, 2019

Whatever the reasons behind the mercurial cancelation of his state visit to Denmark, President Trump’s interest in expanding the U.S. presence in Greenland is understandable. U.S. strategists have good reason to be interested in Greenland, a self-governing territory of Denmark, and the Arctic area, generally due to China’s growing presence in the region as well as other considerations.

Greenland is the 12th-largest territory in the world but is also one of its least densely populated land areas with under 60,0000 inhabitants. Its commercial and strategic value is increasing as transpolar shipping lanes become more navigable due to shrinking Arctic ice. The island also has valuable natural resources, including coal, copper, gas, iron, oil, zinc, and rare earth minerals. Yet the people of Greenland have few immediate economic opportunities, leading to concerns that its residents will become overly dependent on Chinese investment offers.

As noted in an earlier article, “Climate change is a catalyst not only for melting Arctic ice, but for China’s entry into Arctic geopolitics.” Chinese companies have been pursuing mining rights to rare earth metals and floating other investment projects there for years. China has also begun acquiring a fleet of icebreakers to support its “Polar Silk Road” vision as an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative.

President Trump is not alone in expressing concern about China’s growing foreign economic presence and the geographic leverage it portends. These anxieties extend beyond issues of economic competitiveness and ecological degradation to encompass political-military considerations. Not only do Chinese investments seem designed to acquire strategic ports and minerals, but also can justify a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) presence to defend Chinese capital and nationals there.

A U.S. Defense Department report released earlier this year pointedly noted that Danish officials “publicly expressed concern about China’s interest in Greenland, which has included proposals to establish a research station in Greenland, establish a satellite ground station, renovate airports, and expand mining.”

Former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen more recently observed, “Greenland’s home-rule government is understandably enthusiastic about attracting larger investments to develop the local economy. But it should not throw the doors open to easy money from states like Russia and China, when it brings with it the specter of dubious geopolitical projects.”

The Danish government has already been quietly limiting the Chinese footprint in Greenland’s sensitive areas. When Chinese firms attempted to purchase an abandoned naval facility or build military-capable airports, Danish authorities discreetly blocked the transaction.

With dramatic rhetoric, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded the tocsin about China’s Arctic intentions in his May 2019 speech in Rovaniemi, Finland, on the sidelines of the 11th meeting of the Arctic Council, the main intergovernmental body for discussing regional uses. Although Pompeo welcomed Chinese investment in principle, he wanted more transparency, greater local benefits, and urged Beijing to eschew the “pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere.”

The United States is walking the walk, strengthening its overall Arctic presence. In May 2018, the Navy reestablished its Second Fleet and will increase Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Arctic to contest regional states’ unrecognized maritime claims. Both the Pentagon and NATO have conducted larger drills in the Arctic in recent years.

The most important U.S. military facility in Greenland is the Thule Air Base on the island’s northwestern coast. It is farther north than any other U.S. land base, providing critical support for U.S. and NATO defenses. The base’s radars can warn of potential strategic bomber and missile flights into North America and engage with U.S. low-Earth orbiting satellites for space situational awareness.

On the diplomatic plane, the United States will reestablish a consulate in Greenland, in Nuuk, for the first time in decades. The Trump administration has stated that renewing a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence would “Protect essential equities in Greenland while developing deeper relationships with Greenlandic officials and society.”

President Trump’s state visit had aimed to reinforce the already important strategic ties between the two NATO allies. Though Trump criticized Denmark for not spending enough on defense, Denmark’s overall contributions to NATO security are admirable. The Kingdom helped integrate the Baltic states into NATO and fortify the alliance against Russian and transnational threats. Denmark also contributed troops to the U.S.-led military missions Iraq and Afghanistan, air power to the NATO campaign in Libya, and counter-WMD and counter-terrorism assets to the war in Syria.

Washington should take additional measures to strengthen security ties with Greenland, Denmark, and other Arctic partners. The U.S. defense capabilities in Greenland could be enhanced to include better maritime reconnaissance platforms such as P-8 aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles. A greater Danish air and sea military presence on the island would also be welcome.

Another step could be for U.S. and Danish authorities, ideally joined by other European governments and Canada, to discuss how to boost regional economic activity among Western partners. In September 2018, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, while visiting Thule, issued a “Statement of Intent on Defense Investments in Greenland.” The declaration affirmed the Department’s “interest in investments in Greenland that may strengthen regional security, improve situational awareness, maintain low tension in the region, and may serve dual military and civilian use.”

Though offering positive rhetoric, the Statement needs more concrete project funding, such as additional support contracts with local contracts and other implementation measures to realize its lofty intentions. The resulting cooperative economic development model could be applied to boost U.S. investments in other critical Arctic partners, including Denmark’s Faroe Islands.

Another priority is to promote environmentally responsible policies in the Arctic. Secretary Pompeo struck the right note in his back-to-back May 2019 Arctic presentations, which emphasized a commitment to environmentally responsible behavior, scientific research, improving the livelihood of indigenous peoples, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Additionally, Western lawyers could develop effective liability mechanisms to cover the risk of oil or gas accidents in the Arctic. Chinese and other foreign stakeholders should back this development given their growing hydrocarbon activities in the region.

Finally, a future U.S. president should make a state visit to Denmark at the earliest opportunity to affirm the growing economic and strategic importance of the Arctic region to the United States. U.S. cabinet and other senior officials have been making more frequent trips to Arctic states, but a presidential visit would impart critical positive momentum to transatlantic ties.

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