China in Greenland: A call for deeper EU political engagement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

In today’s globalised economy, the fact that Greenland is doing business with China is nothing but normal. The issue arises when potential Chinese investments in Greenland could raise security concerns. [Shutterstock]

Without a deeper political agenda, the EU might rapidly lose ground in Greenland to the benefit of China, write André Gattolin and Damien Degeorges.

André Gattolin is vice-chair of the French Senate’s European Affairs Committee and the author of three reports dealing with the EU and the Arctic. Damien Degeorges is a Reykjavík-based international consultant specialising in EU-Arctic affairs.

One of the most strategic Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) associated to the European Union, Greenland, is more than a vast piece of land of 2,166,086 km2 largely covered by an icecap and with a population of about 56,000 inhabitants. Part of the North American sphere and home to the Thule Air Base, which is vital to the defence of the United States, the Arctic island has more and more obviously been attracting in recent years the interest of another global power, China.

China-US in the Arctic

A lot of attention has so far been put on the China-US power confrontation that is still ongoing at a hard power level in China’s backyard, the South China Sea. This competition has already simultaneously been taking place for a number of years, primarily at a soft power level, in the backyard of the United States, the Arctic.

When it comes to Greenland, things are more sensitive for a number of reasons. To make it short, should China want to provoke the United States in its Arctic backyard, “buying” Greenland through some investments would be a powerful and, on paper, easy option.

The most symbolic episode so far happened in 2016 when Denmark had to withdraw from the sale a naval base at Grønnedal, Greenland, that appeared to be of interest to a Chinese company. This base was previously a US naval station. Symbolically at least, the purchase by a Chinese company of a former US military premise, strategically located in the North American sphere, would have undoubtedly been very powerful.

In today’s globalised economy, the fact that Greenland is doing business with China is nothing but normal. The issue arises when potential Chinese investments in Greenland could raise security concerns. Investing in Greenland is not like investing anywhere else: a single large project can create a heavy dependency on the local economy. Depending on the nature, the scale, and the location of the project, who is investing does matter for security reasons. Not only now but also should the self-ruled territory one day become a sovereign state.

More strategically oriented Chinese interest in Greenland might reduce the room for further Greenlandic autonomy and become a source of greater domestic tensions within the Kingdom of Denmark. For obvious security reasons, it also poses a challenge to the United States.

Education is the key

It is one thing that a Greenlandic state has become a possibility since the 2009 Danish Act on Greenland Self-Government, pending though on a final approval by the Danish Parliament, but the viability of such a scenario is another thing and would undoubtedly need to be questioned.

Three out of many issues are almost never discussed in the Greenlandic debate on independence: currency, foreign service, and defence. The last point, defence, is enough to understand why Greenland, given the size of both its territory and its population, would not be in a position of having its own armed forces, just like its neighbour Iceland, an island infinitely smaller with much more inhabitants, does not have.

Given the strategic assets of Greenland, the characteristics of the island and, once again, the impact that a single large investment could have on the local economy, it should not even be necessary to precise that the so-called “independence” of a Greenlandic state would be in the hands of its security provider(s).

Investing in education as well as resolving major social issues are critical if Greenland’s development is to be one day a success story.

In 2016, a cooperation agreement was signed between notably the municipalities of Shanghai and Kujalleq with the intention to open a “Confucius” classroom in 2018 at Campus Kujalleq in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Further similar developments on the island would have to be monitored closely, as it could have a more than serious soft power impact, to say the least, at a scale like Greenland.

It appeared in 2017 that within less than 10 years, no less than almost 1% of the Icelandic population had been taught Chinese by the Confucius Institute of Northern Lights in Iceland, established in 2008. By only targeting 0,05% of the population, the impact could already be huge in a Greenlandic context. On an average of 56,000 inhabitants, that means less than 30 persons. It represents, for example, a majority in a Parliament of only 31 members, the Premier, key ministers, the five Mayors that Greenland accounts as well as some other key stakeholders in the Greenlandic society.

Learning a language, a culture and a society is not an issue but clearly something that needs to be encouraged in a world facing greater intellectual impoverishment. Who is teaching culture and society does, however, matter when it comes to China.

With no less than EUR 31 million invested every year between 2014 and 2020 by the European Union in the education system of Greenland, the EU should handily lead the competition against China when it comes to shaping the geopolitical future of such a strategic OCT.

Without a deeper political agenda, the EU might rapidly lose ground in Greenland to the benefit of China. Brexit will mean fewer OCTs and the EU needs to strengthen its links with the remaining ones by notably including the OCTs into the Investment Plan for Europe. A sustainable development of Greenland would deserve such a European engagement.

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