How a dispute over China and Greenland’s airports worked its way toward a solution

ANALYSIS: The abrupt intervention of Danish authorities into a planned airport expansion raises questions about the limits of Greenland's self-determination — and the United States' role in Greenland.

By Martin Breum - June 30, 2018
Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, is slated to get a longer runway. But the prospect of Chinese involvement in the project has stirred up a dispute between the Self-Rule government in Nuuk and Copenhagen. (Mittarfeqarfiit, Greenland Airports)

If you look at a map of the Arctic you will notice soon how humongously large Greenland is. It is the world’s largest island., at more than 2,100,000 square kilometers (more than 836,000 square miles). The southern tip is more than 2,500 kilometers (more than 1,500 miles) from its northern twin.

So, in a rapidly shifting world it is not a small matter who actually runs Greenland and particularly its foreign affairs.

The U.S. continues its activities at Thule Air Base in northern Greenland. The U.S. Air Force runs a large radar there ready to pick up any trace of missiles from anywhere to the east — be it from Russia, China or North Korea.

China also shows growing interest in Greenland. Chinese companies own stakes in several larger mining projects. The Chinese authorities want to build a 2,000-square-meter (about 22,000-square-foot) science station in Greenland. If it happens it will be the largest in Greenland. A large Chinese state-controlled construction firm wants to build three airports in Greenland, which the politicians in Nuuk, the capital, are eager to have. This is the largest infrastructure project in Greenland’s history.

[Denmark, Greenland agree to revisit airport funding, putting Chinese investment on hold]

Russia is also in the equation somewhere, although less conspicuously. Earlier this month, I heard a Greenlandic politician making statements of Russians submarines supposedly running errands along Greenland’s eastern coast in the waters towards Iceland. Those waters are part of what security analysts talk about as the GIUK Gap. This gap comprises the straits between Greenland and Iceland and between Iceland and the United Kingdom. The term has a long story going back to World War II, but suffice to say that this is where the Russian Northern Fleet and its nuclear subs based around Murmansk in the Russian Arctic would make its way into the Atlantic if it was ever needed for any conflict in those parts.

So obviously, it is nice to know: Who actually runs Greenland’s foreign affairs?

Acting alone?

Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, so historically all foreign affairs including all matters of military security were handled by the king in Copenhagen, and later — since Denmark currently has no king — by the queen. The royals, however, long ago handed over such powers to the elected governments in Denmark. Since then, the foreign affairs of the Kingdom have been handled in ordinary, democratic ways like in most other western countries.

Except, however, for the fact that Greenland and the Faroe Islands (the other North Atlantic nation that is also part of the Kingdom of Denmark) have rapidly evolved into small semi-autonomous countries, who want to do things their own way. (I say small here because only 56,000 people live in Greenland, and only 50,000 in the Faroe Islands).

And so here is the beef: The government in Copenhagen and the elected authorities in Nuuk and Tórshavn, the Faroese capital, no longer agree on everything and the questions of who may decide on matters of foreign affairs are becoming still more sticky.

The Faroese, for example, now sell more fish to Russia than Norway in direct conflict with EU and US policies of sanctions against Russia after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And Greenland and the Faroe Island have opted not to be part of the EU, even if Denmark is.

If you ask a Danish diplomat, it’s all quite simple: The Greenlanders and the Faroese are allowed to deal with other countries, sign formal agreements and so forth on behalf of the Kingdom in basically all matters that relate to their own internal affairs — say environmental matters, educational affairs, fishing rights, minerals explorations and so forth. Copenhagen must be informed and consulted, but otherwise the two North Atlantic communities are free to act on behalf of the Kingdom.

But the number of dilemmas are growing fast: Earlier this month, for instance, the question of China and the airports in Greenland came to an interesting peak.

U.S. interests

The Self Rule-government in Nuuk has prequalified a Chinese company, the state-controlled China Communication Construction Company Ltd., as one of five who are eligible to make bids for the construction of three airport-projects in Greenland.

[Construction plans leave the fate of Greenland’s main airport up in the air]

The process was well advanced when suddenly and with little warning the three top ministers of the Danish government — the prime minister, the foreign minister and the minister of defense — made it clear that they intended to intervene.

The Denmark Minister of Defense, Claus Hjort Frederiksen, had met in Washington with his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and spoke to the press immediately afterwards:

“It is obvious that the Americans are preoccupied with the question of Chinese investments in Greenland,” he said. He said that Mattis had made reference to China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea and that this should be a warning for the Greenland case.

To the Danish government the matter is clear cut: As the construction of airports in Greenland threatens to choke Greenland in a web of financial and other debts to China it may jeopardize the security interests of the entire Kingdom.

This message was delivered to Nuuk diplomatically but with no hesitation: The airport project is no longer a case only for the authorities in Nuuk. The Self Rule Act of 2009, the legal underpinning of Greenland’s autonomy, makes clear that when matters of security are at stake it instantly becomes a matter for the government in Copenhagen.

And thus we arrive at the crux of the matter.

The arrangements behind Greenland’s autonomy and the twin arrangement between Denmark and the Faroe Islands do not include any clear definitions of what security is. The legal arrangements clearly place all matters of security in the hands of Copenhagen, but they do not specify when, for instance, the building of airports, a loan from foreign banks, a mining operation or any other activity in Greenland or the Faroe Islands should be considered a matter of security.

When I asked professor Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen at the University of Copenhagen, who is one of Denmark’s leading security analysts, if the airports in Greenland was really a security issue, he put it this way:

“I find it extremely hard to see how this could have consequences for the security of Denmark or Greenland. I believe it is the Americans who have a problem here. In the latest strategy of the US they shift from the war on terror to possible confrontation with Russia and China. The U.S. is interested in stemming China’s influence. Since the second world war the U.S. has regarded Greenland as part of its backyard and they don’t want the Chinese to build airports there.”

Some four years ago, the Nuuk government decided to lift a ban on uranium mining in Greenland — despite loud protests from Copenhagen. Nuuk claimed it was a simple case of mineral exploration; Copenhagen worried over nuclear proliferation and it took three years before a settlement was reached.

This time around, when Copenhagen decided that the airports in Greenland were a matter of national security, the politicians in Nuuk reacted with similar degrees of consternation. Talking to local media they maintained that simple matters like the construction of runways in civilian airports had nothing to do with national security and that they would continue to deal with the Chinese as planned.

The head of Naalakkersuisut, the government in Nuuk, Kim Kielsen seemed adamant, and when I communicated with the head of the opposition in Greenland’s parliament, Sara Olsvig, she agreed:

“The Danish government must respect that these are decisions for Greenland to make. Many of us think that Denmark applies double standards when it comes to Chinese investments. Denmark does its utmost to attract Chinese investments for businesses in Denmark. It seems strange that there always seem to be problems when Greenland wants to attract investments”.

Then, as in the uranium case, after media skirmishing, a pragmatic approach was agreed upon.

On June 12 the head of the government in Nuuk, Kim Kielsen, met in Copenhagen with Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and a formal agreement was reached. The two sides will now explore how Danish funding — private, public or both — may be mobilized for the airports in Greenland. Lars Løkke Rasmussen has long advocated establishment of a Danish-Greenlandic Arctic investment fund and this latest agreement might be the first light of that.

Nuuk has not given up its powers to decide who will pour the concrete and pave the new runways. Chinese builders may still arrive in Greenland to do grunt work, but there seems to be agreement between the main players that Greenland will make efforts to avoid any real dependency on China — at least this time around.