China in Greenland: A challenge for the European Union

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

There are clear signs of competition between the European Union and China to gain access to the strategic assets of Greenland, and they will continue to show during Hu Jintao's state visit in Denmark these days, argues Damien Degeorges.

Damien Degeorges is associated researcher to the University of Greenland and author of 'The Role of Greenland in the Arctic'.

"The Arctic is hotter than ever. Not only due to the consequences of climate change in this region, but also because of the rise of global non-regional powers in this new frontier of international relations.

China is from far the most significant. Such a presence raises opportunities and challenges for future developments in the Arctic. China in the Arctic can be an enormous asset when it comes to climate research, if it leads to further international cooperation in the field of polar research, which is of strategic importance in order to get the best data to adapt to climate change and global sea level rise.

The case of Greenland in the Arctic is often underestimated. This self-ruled territory of the Kingdom of Denmark is in an advanced stage of its state-building process and attracts major powers. Greenland is as large as about half of the European Union and inhabited by no more than 57,000 persons. Only 44 politicians are in charge of Greenland (including ministers, MPs and mayors).

Within a very short timeframe (a couple of months), the Premier of Greenland Kuupik Kleist has met with powerful persons from the US, the EU and China: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President José Manuel Barroso of the European Commission, China's minister of land and resources Xu Shaoshi (Kuupik Kleist also takes part in the state banquet offered in honour of Chinas President Hu Jintao during his state visit to Denmark in June 2012 – the first visit ever of a Chinese President to Denmark), the 27 Permanent Representatives of Member States to the EU (COREPER II), several European Commissioners, and more.

Which head of state or government in the world is having such a privilege? Given that Greenland is not a state, it is simply unique. It also shows how resources can be a key to international recognition (Greenland took over the management of its natural resources in 2010, as part of the Self Rule Act).

Those days of June 2012 show a clear competition between the European Union and China to gain access to the strategic assets of Greenland. Rare Earth Elements are on the list and brought Vice-President Antonio Tajani of the European Commission to Greenland on June 13th. Analysts agree on considering that China's President Hu Jintao will certainly have its eyes looking toward Greenland while visiting Denmark on June 14-16.

China's interest in Greenland is not new. Only going back to 2005, when then Premier of Greenland Hans Enoksen visited China, the Asian power was among the few countries looking at Greenland at that time.

The visit to China by Greenland's minister for industry and natural resources Ove Karl Berthelsen in November 2011 showed a clear signal of China's interest in Greenland: China Vice-Premier Li Keqiang welcomed the Greenlandic minister.

While representatives of major economies may have difficulties to be received at this level when travelling to China, it appears more than easy for Greenland, without expecting it and especially without being a state (particularly rare in the case of a relationship with China). April 2012 and the visit to Greenland by China's minister of land and resources Xu Shaoshi was just another confirmation of China's interest in Greenland.

While China is heavily looking at Greenland when it notably comes to polar research, natural resources (i.e. iron ore) and infrastructures, Greenland is looking for investments to further develop its economy toward a possible independence.

A too fast independence would lead to higher risks of economic difficulties and become an opportunity for foreign countries to offer an independent Greenland economic assistance. Such a (long-term) situation could have consequences for future developments in the Arctic and global energy security.

Given its particularities and strategic assets, an independent Greenland would need an economic "security net" to "securise" its development, as the Danish state's yearly block grant to Greenland will have come to an end. This economic "security net" could be provided by a partly supranational entity, either in North America or in Europe. As of today, the European Union had no equivalent in that regard in North America, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) only deals with free trade.

One of the most important challenges facing future developments in the Arctic is to avoid a weak Greenlandic state, given the strategic assets of this territory at the centre of the new frontier of international relations. By securing the development of an independent Greenland and preventing major risks in case of economic difficulties, the European Union could therefore have a constructive long-term role in the Arctic, in the interest of Arctic states."

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