Sunday, May 24, 2020

Who Owns the North Pole - Yet Again

This blog has devoted many, many posts to the question of who owns the North Pole - or rather - who seeks to possess strategic possession of the Arctic region. As the sea ice continues to retreat in the Arctic, offering new economic opportunities, arguments between China, Russia and the US will increase.

Greenland is an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. Since 2009, a self-government agreement allows it run all its own affairs except foreign policy and defense, which fall under Denmark's remit.  Greenland's growing independence means more opportunities. As it seeks to boost its economy, the island has been making overtures across the globe for trading partners. Unimpressed by Greenlanders' increasing independence and seeking more US influence, US President Donald Trump suggested he could buy the island from Denmark last year.

"Greenland is open for all. It's certainly not up for sale, but it is open to business," summarizes Louise van Schaik, head of unit EU and global affairs at the Clingendael Institute in The Netherlands.

This summer the US is reopening its diplomatic mission in Nuuk for the first time since 1953, as well as offering the island nation $12 million (€11 million) in investments. The money will be used to boost the territory's mineral industries, tourism and education. The last time the US opened a consulate on Greenland was in 1940. The German Army had just invaded Denmark and the Americans wanted to stop the Nazis gaining a foothold in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

A US State Department official said a press briefing that it wants "a secure and stable Arctic where US interests are safeguarded." But this time around it's not Germany the US sees as challenging its interests. Now it's Russia and China.

East Asia is its largest export market for fish — Greenland's largest industry — and the government has been looking into the idea of establishing an East Asian consulate. A Chinese state-owned mining company, Shenghe Resources, has taken a leading role in processing minerals, which are used in technology projects, from Greenland's largest mining project.

The possibility of new business is primarily driving China's push for influence in Greenland and the Arctic, argues van Schaik. "China's interest in the Arctic comes from wanting to have a stake in any new sea lanes and rare earth minerals. Its strategy is to create a presence there," she explains. "Looking at Greenland specifically, it has those rare earth minerals, and it is also a significant fish market for China."
Russia has security concerns about the US extending its influence over the Arctic. The US maintains the Thule Air Base in the northwest of Greenland, which gives it a strategic point to monitor satellites and intercontinental missiles, as well as launch aircraft.

"The Arctic is important militarily for Russia, as it's the home of its nuclear fleet and Russia needs to make sure it is protected and has access to the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland," says Ekaterina Klimenko, a researcher in Russia and the Arctic at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Any aggression in the region makes this more difficult... Although it's not mentioned explicitly, the Arctic is culturally important to Russian identity. It is a great power with a long history in the region, and it does not want to lose that," adds Klimenko.

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