The immenseness of Greenland relative to its colonial overlord Denmark would puzzle the uninformed viewer about how this arrangement came to be. However, it is well-known that despite being 50 times the size of Denmark, Greenland is very sparsely populated and far less powerful.
However, it is not a powerless state — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The developments of the modern age — namely technological advancements and climate change — have worked in the world’s largest island’s favor, putting the semi-independent nation in the focus of the three great powers of the day: the United States, Russia and China.
The United States was the first of the bunch to recognize Greenland’s potential. Following half a decade of occupation during World War II, the United States offered Denmark $100 million in 1946 for control of the island. The Danes refused, but U.S. interest in Greenland was far but dissipated. In the 1950s, the United States opened its northernmost base in Greenland called the Thule Air Base. From Thule, the United States proceeded to attempt construction of a series of subterranean nuclear missile launch sites in northern Greenland. The project — which went on throughout much of the ’60s before it was deemed implausible — was done without Denmark’s knowledge or consent.
In recent years, the United States remains interested in Greenland, especially if they are to become independent from Denmark. Wikileaks revealed in 2011 that the United States was interested in tapping into the island’s vast hydrocarbons that are expected to be found off the coast of Greenland. A cable reads: “Greenland is on a clear track toward independence, which could come more quickly than most outside the Kingdom of Denmark realize … With Greenlandic independence glinting on the horizon, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to shape the circumstances in which an independent nation may emerge.”
Of course the two main threats to U.S. global supremacy, China and Russia, are not about to let the United States have free reign over Greenland, which is of strategic interest to them as well. For Russia, influence over Greenland is seen as an opportunity for Russia to return to the global scene in a big way. While the melting of sea ice in the Arctic may have devastating consequences in the long term, the Russians see it as an opportunity to open up a North Atlantic Sea Route, with Russia as the primary benefactor. Putin has remarked that such a route could be more important than the Suez Canal for commercial transportation, as the opening up of the sea lanes could allow for faster transport times for northerly countries.
Furthermore, the melting of the Arctic opens up the possibility of vast oil reserves within the immediate vicinity of Greenland. At the 2014 Arctic Oil and Gas Summit in Norway, it was estimated that 44 billion barrels of oil could be under the melting glaciers of the Arctic Ocean. For Russia, this makes the potential that the Arctic presents of paramount importance. Not only could the region supply Russia with extraordinary wealth, but it is also far removed from the quagmire that is the Middle East. Profits from the Arctic could allow Russia to gracefully depart from the messy scene in Syria and no longer have to pay for expensive military activities in the region.
China’s involvement in Greenland is more focused on the island itself, rather than the surrounding waters. The minerals on the land are China’s primary motivation for its investments. China has been investing in the island heavily in recent years, despite having never been involved in the island before 2016. Investment in uranium, lead and zinc mines all provide Greenland with much needed revenue, and China with a standing in the Arctic.
This increase in interest all stems from an assumption that the island will be gaining full independence from Denmark sooner rather than later. There are a few flaws to Greenland’s plan for independence, such as the fact that a significant portion of its budget comes from an annual grant from Copenhagen, and that Greenland is afflicted with some of the highest rates of alcoholism and suicide in the region. However, if Greenland were to become fully independent, it is possible that investments from the United States, China and Russia could help balance their budget, or perhaps even produce a surplus.
In April, the government began the process of drafting proposals for independence, but this process may take two years or longer, according to fisheries and hunting minister Karl-Kristian Kruse. Regardless, the Great powers have been operating on the assumption that this will happen in the near future, and this has greatly benefited Greenland. Denmark, it ought to be noted, is unlikely to be pleased by Greenland’s departure, as it would mean that Denmark would no longer be considered an Arctic power. However, understanding the inevitability of the situation, so far Denmark has been compliant with Greenland’s wishes.
And thus it begins: the race for Greenland. Whoever comes out on top will have a significant edge in the Arctic, a region with increasing significance in today’s warmer world.