[Analytics] Sino-US rivalry intensifies in the Arctic

Arctic shipping routs. Image: The Arctic Institute.

Recently, the United States has stepped up efforts to block any involvement of “Non-Arctic” nations into the region. “Simply put, we believe the affairs of the Arctic should be governed by the actual nations of the Arctic,” said US President Donald Trump in a joint press conference with Finland’s President Sauli Niisto on October 2, 2019. “And, as you know, there are other people coming into the Arctic and we don’t like it. We can’t let it happen and we won’t let it happen.” Donald Gasper specially for the Macau Post Daily.

Trump was clearly referring to China, though it has been officially recognised as a nation with legitimate Arctic interests since the Svalberg Treaty of 1920.

“China’s commitment to treaties and laws is welcomed by the seven Arctic states when the United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and has undermined [steps to mitigate] the effects of climate change, evident from the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement,” says B.R. Rashmi, a researcher at India’s Manipal Academy.

But Chinese plans in Greenland, for example, have caused concern from the US for a long time. Under US pressure, Denmark in 2016 turned down an offer from General Nice Group, a Hong Kong-based firm to buy an abandoned naval base and in 2018 the bid from China Communication Construction Company to build three airports in the territory to facilitate tourism was also rejected, due to US lobbying.

Trump’s offer to buy Greenland

Recently, the United States came into the news with Trump’s offer to buy Greenland from Denmark, an offer which was met with incredulity and flatly turned down by Copenhagen.

“The United States has clearly no understanding of the sentiment in Greenland,” says a local source who researches the region.

Greenland has a deal with Denmark that it will gradually take over all aspects of its government as soon as it has the capacity to do so. A fund was established some years ago to be financed with income from exploiting natural resources in Greenland, similar to the oil fund in Norway. Half of the income from natural resources is used for decreasing Danish subsidies to Greenland’s government, which will gradually take over the relevant functions of the government.

Thus Greenland’ politicians want to increase foreign investment in their resources to lessen Greenland’s dependence on Denmark, and they have been trying to get China to invest. Denmark has tried to hinder any such attempts in the name of Western security interests, i.e. US interests, but actually in order to ensure Danish material interests. The Danes never dreamed the US would like to buy Greenland. Furthermore, Denmark does not have the power to sell Greenland because of its legal obligations to the territory.

“People in the Nordic countries are aware that Greenland has already gained contractual independence from Denmark on any issue it wants,” says the researcher. “They just laughed at Trump’s ridiculous idea, which proves that the US government does not ask advice from its own specialists on issues in the region.”

Interestingly, US Vice President Mike Pence came on a visit to Iceland in September, one month after Trump was scheduled to visit Denmark. “I am personally sure that his visit was originally supposed to discuss possibilities for using Iceland as a transit-hub for the US takeover of Greenland, investments, etc. because that would be the only practical way to do it,” says the researcher. “The idea came to naught. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen rejected the sale of Greenland – and Trump decided to cancel his visit. It would have been a bit awkward if Pence had cancelled his visit to Iceland as well. So the US just pretended to be interested in its relations with Iceland and that this had always been the purpose of the visit. Understandably, Pence focused on China’s ‘threat to the Arctic’, etc. in Iceland.”

While in Iceland, Pence praised the country for having allegedly refused to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched by Beijing. But Rejkjavik issued a statement denying that it had ruled out joining.

Iceland, Norway and Denmark are NATO countries and bound to follow the US lead on security issues in the region. Sweden and Finland are also very careful not to offend the US or openly act against its advice on security matters. Thus none of these countries has signed any kind of memorandum of understanding on the Silk Road (B&R) with China.

However, Denmark and Finland are cooperating with Beijing on many related issues. Norway would also like to but it is very careful. “Sweden has its own problems with relations with China because of its missionary tendencies (somewhat like Norway, actually) and Iceland is extremely careful.”

“Small countries/territories like Iceland and Greenland have welcomed the dragon with open arms, as it is to their advantage to partner with the world’s second biggest economy,” says Rashmi.

Restraining China, the US simultaneously encourages separatism in Greenland’s political elite, says another observer. “Washington doesn’t stick to fair play. The US plans to open a consulate in the capital, Nuuk, and holds talks with Greenland behind Denmark’s back on supporting and participating in the territory’s development of rare-earth mining.”

Donald Gasper is a Hong Kong-based analyst and writer

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