US defense investments in Greenland infrastructure would keep NATO in, China out and Russia at bay

Washington says it will invest Greenlandic airport infrastructure that can be used for civilian and military purpose. The investments serve multiple purposes of their own.

By Kevin McGwin - September 19, 2018
A pair of Danish F-16s fly past a US radar station on the Greenland ice cap during a 2014 training mission (Forsvaret)

Politically, Greenland has cast its lot with the West. But, when it comes to commercial opportunities, it is more open. China, especially, has been the object of an intense lobbying effort, to the point where Nuuk is mulling opening a de facto embassy in Beijing.

For the most part, the two approaches coexist. Greenland, for example, is a member of the Nordic Council and co-operates closely with the EU. Once it becomes independent, it intends to seek NATO membership. At the same time, Chinese money props up three Greenlandic mining projects. Meanwhile, in 2016, Huawei, a Chinese telecom alleged to have close ties to Beijing, was selected to install a high-speed subsea internet cable. A handful Chinese nationals staff fish processing plants.

China, of course, has commercial interests just about everywhere. And many jurisdictions would like to land more Chinese investment. Rarely is this a problem, but there are limits.

[Greenland leaders head to China seeking greater Chinese involvement in their nation’s economy]

Greenland, reckons Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, a Danish academic, might find itself reaching the limit before other countries would. Partly, this is a matter of volume. “Greenland’s economy is small. It would not take much for one country — China or otherwise — to hold sway over Nuuk,” he says. “It would be foolish of NATO to let in a Greenland that was under the influence of Beijing.”

Infrastructure and other operations that could have military significance, on the other hand, are non-starters. The first hint this was the case came in 2016, when Denmark suddenly changed its mind about putting a disused naval base on Greenland’s western coast up for sale. The suggestion at the time, and since confirmed, was that the change of plans was intended to prevent a Chinese firm that has permission to mine iron nearby from buying it.

More recently, the selection of CCCC, a nationally controlled Chinese firm that was once banned from bidding on World Bank projects because of its fraudulent business practices, as one of six foreign companies that would be permitted to bid on upgrades of two Greenlandic airports and construction of a third, raised concerns that Beijing was about to gain a toehold in Greenland.

[The controversy over Greenland airports shows China isn’t fully welcome in the Arctic — yet]

The concern about Chinese involvement is particularly great in Washington, which has had a military presence in Greenland since the Second World War, and, according to Heather Conley, of CSIS, an American think-tank, continues to see its military assets there as essential to its security.

“It’s really from the point of infrastructure. Our strategic center [in the Arctic] is Thule Air Force Base. It’s the only commercial deepwater port that the U.S. has in its inventory in the Arctic,” Conley told ArcticToday earlier this year. “It’s a very important part of America’s missile defense system, through the early warning radar in Thule. And because it is really our strategic footprint, in addition to Alaska, in the Arctic.”

That, she believes, means that if China wants to get involved in something like airport construction, Washington will weigh in. “So when China approaches Greenland officials and they want to build an airstrip, an airport (that’s near to) Thule Air Force Base — what are the strategic implications of that for the United States?”

These cases raise something of gray area. Greenland retains control over most of its own affairs. Foreign policy and defense issues are two notable exceptions, and, in the past, Copenhagen has stepped in to set down strict guidelines for activities like mining of minerals like uranium and rare-earths, that could have military applications.

[US will invest in Greenland infrastructure, says Defense Department]

In case of the airport construction, the Pentagon’s misgivings were passed on to Copenhagen, which then broke with long-standing political tradition and offered to put public money into the airport projects.

Although the Danish and Greenlandic lawmakers who signed the deal last week were careful not to mention China, the expectation is that CCCC is now no longer in the running. The reward for keeping China out, it appears, is an American consideration to make its own investment in Greenland’s airport infrastructure.

A statement issued by the Pentagon on Monday announcing the potential investment was thin on specifics (it was silent on amount, location and type of infrastructure it had in mind), indicating only that the investment — if it happened — would go to build things that had “dual military and civilian purposes,” and that they would “seek to enhance U.S. and NATO capabilities in the North Atlantic.”

This, though, suggests that while the Pentagon is working to keep China out of Greenland, its bigger concern, according to Rahbek-Clemmensen, is matching Russia as it rebuilds its military capabilities in the North.

[Greenland’s airports: Unexpected turbulence]

Being able to have a say in Greenland’s airport infrastructure, he believes, means that Washington can make sure that at least one of them can be used for the fighter jets and reconnaissance planes it would like to operate in the region.

This will likely require things like hangars where they can be serviced, as well as runways long enough for them to land. The former is something that will be of most use to America’s military; the latter, though, was one of the main reasons for undertaking airport construction first place. Its plans call for runways at the existing airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat to be extended to 2,200 meters, putting them within close range of the 2,300 meters runways needed by the F-16 and the F-35, America’s current and next generation of primary fighter jets.

Even though the likelihood of an outright Russian attack is, as Rahbek-Clemmensen puts it, “very hypothetical,” Russia’s increasing military adventurism has shown the importance of having outposts in the Arctic and the North Atlantic after years of focusing on operations in other parts of the world.

“This represents something of a paradigm shift for the Pentagon,” he says. “It is also shows they are thinking long-term. The types of scenarios they are concerned about — whether they involve Chinese investment, Russian military or even a changed relationship between Greenland and Denmark — are things that wouldn’t happen until 2030, perhaps. But the time to prepare for them is now.”

Additional reporting by Melody Schreiber.