The vast expanse of sparsely populated land above the Arctic Circle has become a geopolitical battleground as warming caused by climate change is opening new sea lanes and creating commercial and military activity unimaginable until recently. As the ice retreats, opportunities to tap potential oil and mineral resources could also arise.
Both Russia and the United States, because of Alaska, are members of the Arctic Council, a cooperative group of eight nations, while China has unilaterally declared itself a “near-Arctic” nation. The United States says Beijing is conjuring up a category that doesn’t exist and considers it a thinly veiled effort to expand China’s vision of blazing a “Polar Silk Road.”
“It’s a change that’s driven by the desire of Russia and the People’s Republic of China to challenge the United States and the West,” said a senior State Department official, talking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about geopolitical tensions rising in the frozen north.
“We can expect the rapidly changing Arctic system to create greater incentives for the Kremlin and the PRC to pursue agendas that clash with the interests of the United States and our allies and partners,” he added.
When Trump expressed interest last year in purchasing Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark, he was rebuffed and ridiculed at home as well as in Denmark and Greenland.
“Greenland is Greenlandic,” said Prime Minister Kim Kielsen, declaring that it was not on the market.
Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, called Trump’s idea of buying Greenland “absurd.”
More than a dozen countries already have consulates in Greenland, mostly from Europe but also South Korea and Canada. The United States previously had a diplomatic mission in Greenland’s capital of Nuuk, a town of 18,000 inhabitants, from 1940 to 1953, as part of a bid to ward off the Nazis during World War II.
Though the consulate has been long gone, the U.S. presence is maintained through Thule Air Base and $15 million invested annually in some 50 research projects on the environment and sustainable development.
The planned consulate and $12.1 million from the United States Agency for International Development represents a “rebirth of our engagement in Greenland,” the State Department official said.
It will be targeted to help advance new and renewable energy technologies, develop fisheries management and expand tourism opportunities as Greenland strives to become the next frontier for high-adventure travelers, the official said.
The official announcement of the package was preempted by the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands, who wrote in an online publication that the United States would offer “a substantial package of economic aid” to Greenland and would be “the preferred partner in the Arctic.”
In an opinion piece for the news outlet Altinget, Sands accused Russia of “aggressive behavior and increased militarization in the Arctic,” and China of pursuing “predatory economic interests” in Greenland.
Her remarks prompted some opposition leaders in Denmark and Greenland to express skepticism of U.S. intentions, saying Washington was trying to expand its own interests.
The State Department pushed back, saying its interests were peace and prosperity, and denied the aid is a subterfuge to buy Greenland outright.
“I don’t think anyone should presume that the provision of assistance in any of these areas is designed to pave the way to purchase Greenland,” the State Department official told reporters. “We provide this type of assistance around the world every day in many, many countries. Our intentions here are to deepen the partnership that exists already between the kingdom of Denmark, Greenland and the United States.”
The official characterized the move as “good, old-fashioned diplomatic tradecraft,” designed to address shared economic, scientific and environmental challenges and keep the region free from conflict.
Asked why Washington is not giving the money to the government of Denmark, the official said it will be jointly administered under existing procedures used by USAID and the Departments of State, Interior and Commerce.
“They will go about that it in the same way that they do managing other programs globally,” he said. “There’s no plan or interagency process underway involving the purchase of Greenland.”