The future of geopolitics in the Arctic: Why the Greenlandic elections are vital for Chinese, Russian, and American strategic aims. Greenland, an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, makes up the largest inhabited Arctic landmass and has been crucial to American strategic interests for years despite its small population and low economic output. During the Cold War, the American-built Thule Air Base acted as one of the first lines of defense against the Soviet Union, with early warning systems and nuclear-armed B-52s permanently stationed at the base to assert American first-strike capabilities against Moscow. More recently, Greenland has been in the international media since former US President Donald Trump triedand failed to purchase the territory from Denmark in 2019. The reason for Trump’s inquiry was not only the military importance of Greenland however, but also the newfound strategic importance of American influence in the Arctic, as climate change is slowly making the entire region into a geopolitical battleground for the United States, Russia and crucially China who, despite not possessing any Arctic territory, nonetheless declared themselves a “near Artic state” in 2018.
This rivalry is in large part due to the natural riches found in many parts of the Arctic. The underground of Greenland alone is believed to be the single largest deposit of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) in the world, with the rest of the Arctic region also providing extensive possibilities for the mining of uranium, natural gas, and oil, to name a few. REEs especially are becoming increasingly important in modern manufacturing, with uses in many technologies such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones, not to mention their importance in producing industrial batteries for electric cars and renewable energy production. Providing most of the world’s supply of REEs, China currently holds a de-facto monopoly on the refinement and sale of REEs to the possible future detriment of the West. Therefore, it is also widely believed that Trumps offer to buy Greenland was an attempt to break up the Chinese monopoly on REEs, as a proposed mining project at Kvanefjeld Mountain in Southern Greenland was set to make Australian-Chinese owned mining company Greenland Minerals one of the world’s leading producers of REEs. This would further solidify the Chinese monopoly on REEs and strengthen China’s influence in the Arctic region. However, the recent Greenlandic parliamentary elections ended with the socialist-leaning party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, forming a new coalition government with the stated goal to end the mining project in Kvanefjeld due to environmental concerns. This leaves China in a precarious position in Greenland and the Arctic. Their vast mining project is increasingly likely to be canceled by the new government and the influence of China in the region might diminish as a result. China, however, also retains its position as the world’s largest producer of REEs and can be sure to hold onto that position for the time being due to the lack of new mining permits likely to be given under the new Greenlandic government.
Although rich in natural resources and of continued military importance to the United States, Greenland remains only a single piece of the larger puzzle in the Arctic. The melting polar ice caps are slowly opening up the possibilities for further geopolitical rivalries in the Arctic that of the mining of natural resources, with the establishment of new commercially viable shipping routes through the Arctic waters considered possible in the near future. These routes have the potential to provide much quicker passage for international shipping. It is estimated that a new route between Europe and the Western United States and East Asia through the Canadian and US-controlled Northwest Arctic Passage would provide a decrease in shipping time of over 40 percent when compared to travel through the normally used Panama Canal. Similarly, the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route would reduce shipping time from Europe to Asia by some 30 percent when compared to travel through the Suez Canal. Controlling these routes would therefore not only prove very profitable in toll fees, but also develop immense strategic importance as they become more integrated into the global economy. As seen recently in the Suez Canal, the impact of halting a major international shipping route even for a short time can be devastating to the global economy, making the territorial control of these routes extremely effective leverage in the realm of global politics.
Considering these realities, it is not hard to see the potential for increased tensions and political rivalry as the United States and Russia, along with China in the background, continue to further their respective political and strategic agendas in the Arctic. What will come of it, in the end, remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Arctic region will only continue to become more geopolitically relevant in the future.
The Editor: Christian Haulund
Christian Haulund is a second-year undergraduate student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests mainly lie within the realm of security in the Nordic and Baltic regions, but also extend to radical militant groups in Africa and the Middle East.