Far north in the Arctic region something is stirring. While the ice is melting, the superpowers are preparing to invest in the Arctic as a Polar Silk Road is emerging. It is here in the middle of climate change and power games that Greenland is geographically situated. Longing for complete sovereignty from Denmark, Greenland is caught between the opportunities and restraints that come with the global attention it is receiving after announcing its intention to expand the nation’s airport infrastructure.

In 2015, the Greenlandic parliament, Inatsisartut, announced that they were seeking investors to finance the expansion of three airports in Nuuk, Ilulissat, and Qaqortoq, aiming to improve their infrastructure in order to compete in the global market and increase the number of tourists. In the long run, an improved economy would allow Greenland to pursue its goal of gaining independence from Denmark. As a result, Greenland has received worldwide attention over the past few months as their financial partners are to be declared. But how can the expansion of a few airports in a country with only 56,000 inhabitants attract global attention? Add a mix of Chinese interests to the recipe and Greenland’s airport projects are suddenly becoming a heated geopolitical topic.

These airport projects may be a first step towards attaining important strategic influence in the Arctic region, and therefore investments in the airports would be of interest to the Chinese, Americans, and Russians as they could gain influence and control over the opening of the Northern Sea passageway to the west and east.

The northern sea route and Northwest passage. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Greenland has been looking into several global investors and entrepreneur companies for their airport projects to see who can offer the most profitable deal. A delegation from Greenland made a visit to Bejiing in November 2017 where they met with entrepreneur companies as well as the Export-import Bank of China (EXIM) to discuss possible Chinese investors for the airport projects.

In March 2018, the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) was pre-qualified in the running with five other international companies to construct the airports, which created unrest within both the Danish and American government. Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen researches policies connected to the Arctic region and has stated that the main concern lies in China potentially gaining influence in Greenland, which in turn could be used to push the United States out of the country. The United States has already established a military presence in Greenland with the Thule Air Base, an American military base built after the Danish-American defence agreement on Greenland in 1951.

The announcement of China’s involvement made the Danish Prime Minister take action and release a statement claiming that the airport projects may have foreign and security policy perspectives that stretches far beyond Greenland.

Air Greenland, Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Although it is autonomous, Greenland is not yet a sovereign state as it is still a subject to the Unity of the Realm (consisting of Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Greenland). Ultimately, this means that matters of constitutional affairs, defence, foreign policy, supreme court, citizenship, and monetary policy still falls under the Kingdom of Denmark.

From the content of the Prime Minister’s statement, it is clear that the prospect of foreign investors in the projects lead to the Danish government expressing its desire to discuss the matter further with the Greenlandic government.

The Danish Prime Minister visited Greenland in September 2018 to propose an investment of 1.6 billion Danish Kroner in the construction of the airports, which was signed by both parties, and thereby making the Danish state co-owner of the airport project officially called Kalaallit Airports A/S.

A few days after the agreement between Denmark and Greenland was announced, the American Department of Defense issued a statement claiming the United States intends to analyze and, where appropriate, strategically invest in projects related to the airport infrastructure in Greenland. Additionally, the statement indicated future investments in Greenland including the financing of projects that serve both military and civilian purposes.

This was well received by the Greenlandic government as it hopes that investments from the United States will further improve the airport projects, and the Danish government also expressed a positive attitude towards U.S. investments as they could ensure that the region remains a low-tension area. However, so far the United States has made no further statements involving concrete plans for investing in the Greenlandic infrastructure.

Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, in mid-November 2018 the agreement to expand the airports with investments from Denmark was passed by a majority in the Greenlandic parliament. The agreement caused mixed reactions amongst the Greenlandic politicians as the discussion of achieving future independence from Denmark was affected.

Some political parties view the construction of the airports as a foundation to create economic growth for the Greenlandic society, which could lead the way towards independence. The former coalition party Naleraq, who left the government in protest during the negotiations, expressed concerns that Greenland would lose the opportunity for independence with the financial interference of the Danish state in the airport projects.

The final decision on which entrepreneur company will construct the airports will be made by Kalaaliit Airports A/S in the beginning of May 2019 and the expansion of the airports is expected to be finished by 2023.

Despite Greenland’s common goal for independence, this case may pose the question whether independence for Greenland is at all within reach as long as it is in such a tight geopolitical situation. The situation is only expected to intensify in the forthcoming years with the Arctic becoming accessible as a result of climate change, which will ultimately lead to more tension between China, Russia and the United States. André Kenn Jakobsen at the Center of Military Studies at Copenhagen University states that the closer Greenland is to becoming independent, the more interests the superpowers will have in Greenland and how they can make use of the situation.

Maria Mei-Mei Kjær Petersen

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