Updated: Jun 8, 2020
On April 23, 2020, the US Department of State announced a $12.1 million aid package to the Government of Greenland and revealed plans to open a new consulate in the self-regulating territory of Denmark. The move is not only a way for the United States to shore up its relationship with the Kingdom of Denmark and the Government of Greenland, but serves to push back against both the Russian Federation and People's Republic of China in the Arctic region.
For decades, American policymakers and analysts have pushed for increased presence on the island. Militarily, Greenland has proven to be a vital strategic location since the Second World War. The Untied States currently has one installation on the island, Thule Air Base, which is home to missile warning systems, space surveillance and tracking platforms, and orbital command and control. Besides being home for critical missile defense and space situational awareness systems, the base is the United States' northernmost deep-water seaport and airfield. Thule's assets would no doubt play a major role in the Pentagon's plan in the case of an armed confrontation in the Arctic region.
Greenland is also important for a different reason: the great amount of energy and metals that are burrowed below its surface. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports indicate that Greenland has abundant gemstone resources, including deposits of diamond, quartz, lapis lazuli, ruby, peridot, topaz, sapphire, tugtupite, and amazinite. Furthermore, vast quantities of gold, platinum, zinc, and iron ore remain untapped. Finally, the US Geological Survey has conducted surveys that indicate the Greenland Sea could contain up to 110 billion barrels of oil.
The United States of America isn't the only state seeking to advance its interests in Greenland, or the greater Arctic, either. Recently, both the Russian Federation and People's Republic have driven the return of great power competition on the international stage. This competition and influence conflict has spread to all parts of the globe, and the Arctic is no exception.
Although Russia, an Arctic Council member, has legitimate interests in the region, its military buildup in the Arctic has proven alarming for the United States. It has established new Arctic commands, overhauled military formations for Arctic Warfare, retrofitted soviet era airfields and infrastructure throughout the region, constructed new forward operating posts and deep-water ports, and installed new air defense and early warning missile systems along its Arctic coastline.
The People's Republic of China is focused on the Arctic for two key reasons: natural resources and sea routes. Although the People's Liberation Army isn't as active in the region as the Russian Federation, it has proven adept in its use of soft-power to advance strategic interests. The Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago, was the victim of Chinese geoeconomic coercion when the Chinese government threatened to drop a trade agreement because the Faroese did not sign a 5G contract with Chinese tech company Huawei.
However, its military current weakness doesn't mean the authoritarian nation isn't seeking to develop hard power assets in the region. In 2016, a Chinese company suspected of having ties to the central government attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and would have succeeded if the government of Denmark hadn't stepped in, vetoing the deal. Dannish officials were anonymously quoted in the press saying they had interfered with the transaction as a favor to its longtime American ally. Once again, in 2018, a Chinese government-owned company was announced as the likely contractor to build a new airport in Greenland. Analysts in both Washington and Denmark feared that the deal would've given China an extreme amount of economic leverage over the government of Greenland, and worried it could result in the US being push out of Thule. The Americans further fretted that the development project could give the Chinese military a potential airstrip on the Island in the case of a hot-war between the United States and China. To the relief of Washington, the Kingdom of Denmark and government of Greenland reached an agreement to choose a different contractor without ties to Beijing.
The $12.1 million dollar aid package and announcement of a new consulate represent, in the words of one senior State Department official, is, "good, old-fashioned diplomatic tradecraft designed to enhance our engagement." Presence matters, and if the United States is to retain its dominance in a new era of great power competition, it must enhance its soft-power tools in the region.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.