(The third in an ongoing series on the quest for control of the Arctic)
WASHINGTON – The United States hit it rich when it purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. They tried to strike it rich again in trying to purchase Greenland.
Unlike the Russians, Denmark said no sale. Ever since, the United States has looked at Greenland with longing eyes — a yearning that has only increased as the Cold War thawed and then reheated, to be followed by the thawing of ice that once surrounded Greenland.
The climate changes that have opened the Arctic waterways around Greenland, couple with it key geographic location as early warning for any Russian attack, has made Greenland even more valuable to the Washington than when it sought to buy it in 1946 for $100 million.
So Greenland remains part of Denmark and, critically, remains a premier outpost in the battle on who controls the Arctic.
The U.S. has a major military facility at Thule Air Base — mostly with nulear bombers poised for a conflict with Russia — and provides the economic impetus for many of the Danish and native inhabitants of the island. Thule also serves as an important early warning radar and satellite tracking station for the U.S. homeland defense.
In the battle for the Arctic, Thule sits near the northern entrance to Baffin Bay, the once ice-choked waterway between Canada and Greenland that is becoming the premier sea route of the northern passage.
The Pentagon just initiated a change of command at U.S. facilities in Greenland.
(The Arctic is generally defined as all U.S. and foreign territory north of the Arctic Circle and all U.S. territory north and west of the boundary formed by the Porcupine, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers; all contiguous seas, including the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas; and the Aleutian islands chain.)
The State Department is considering opening a consulate in Greenland, to deepen ties between the region and Washington — as well as be poised should Greenland become independent.
“With so many challenges for the U.S. coming from the south, policymakers should not forget to look north, as well,” Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation, said in a June paper.
“Americans should not overlook Greenland’s importance to the territorial defense of the U.S. With new security, energy, and economic challenges and opportunities in the Arctic region, the U.S. needs a strong relationship with Greenland.”
While looking north to guard against Russian adventurism and beefing up assets at Thule, the U.S. is also watching a creeping forward by China from the south.
A report on Arctic strategy released by the Coast Guard in April stressed China’s interest in regional infrastructure projects, including airports. A separate Pentagon report on Chinese military activities said Beijing is working to construct a research station in Greenland, in part to dual purpose for Chinese military activities in the Arctic Ocean.
China has declared itself a “near-Arctic” nation as a way of inviting itself to any table where Arctic resources, trade and access is discussed and decided. Arctic nations have scoffed at the idea, all while China continues to invest in a plethora of opportunities in Greenland.
One key focus are mines for rare earth elements, uranium and iron.
However, Beijing was blocked in its attempt to awin a contract to refurbish a U.S. military base in 2016 – for the moment.
“A Chinese presence in Greenland would complicate the U.S. position on the island,” Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College’s Institute for Strategy, told Defense News in September. “Ultimately it is not impossible to imagine that China could pressure the Greenlandic government to ask the Americans to leave or demand permission to get a Chinese military or dual-use presence there.”
In June, the Chinese firm withdrew its bid to refurbish and expand airports in Greenland, citing problems that included obtaining visas and potential work and residence permits for their staff to enter and operate in Greenland, according to news reports. They are expected to seek new opportunities.
And while they may not seek to purchase Greenland as Washington once tried, their forward movement underscores how Greenland has become a lynchpin in the best for the Arctic.