Last year, the Chinese government published a report titled “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative.” It laid out the plan for an Arctic connection between China and Western Europe, which would complement the government’s other projects to construct infrastructure and trade routes connecting the country with Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
As China seeks to become a power player in the Arctic, Beijing has recognized that Greenland is the answer to faster shipping routes and access to mineral deposits to further the Belt and Road Initiative.
So when Greenland issued a solicitation to build three new airports, a Chinese company, controlled by Beijing, and once blacklisted by the World Bank — submitted a bid for the project.
Denmark, which has final say on national security issues involving all things Greenland, strongly objected. Greenland then asked China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which has worked on large infrastructure projects around the world, to remain one of its finalists for the projects, setting up for future negotiations between both governments, said Defense News.
Chinese economic influence on the continent has sent leaders in Europe into a panic — worried that a government-controlled company in Greenland could jeopardize a key American military base located there.
The Chinese “are players in the world economy, as are others, and should be treated equally. But we are on our guard,” Danish Defence Minister Claus Hjort Fredericksen said in a June interview in his Copenhagen office.
“Of course, we welcome cooperation with China in the commercial field. As long as it has commercial purpose, we are not opposed to that. That is a normal way to expand world trade,” Fredericksen said, he added, “we are very careful looking at the issues if these installations may have other purposes, and that is what is causing trouble.”
Since President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the country has invested in everything from mines to scientific expeditions in the high north, said Magnus Nordenman, a regional analyst with the Atlantic Council, and the country has used its economic leverage to drive public policies. China “scooped up a bunch of stuff for cheap, and later, when there was time for votes in the United Nations about human rights, all of a sudden these countries started backing off,” Nordenman notes.
In the past five years, Chinese acquisition firms have targeted transport hubs in Europe, such as the Greek port of Piraeus and the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Chinese firms now control approximately 10 percent of cargo port space in Europe, according to data from the International Transport Forum.
Nordenman said it now all makes sense when considering melting ice in the Arctic could disrupt the world’s shipping system by unleashing new, quicker routes from China to Europe.
“It is intimately connected to what the [North] Sea can mean for them,” Nordenman said, adding that shipping routes in the northern waters would mean no more choke points for China in the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean.
Defense News said CCCC bid for the airport contract would be a massive infrastructure investment for the country. The airport has an estimated cost of 3.6 billion Danish kroner (USD 560 million). If Beijing wins the contract, the airport could become such a significant economic driver for Greenland that it would be almost certain that China could then gain control of the country.
Like elsewhere in Europe, “the big fear is that even a small Chinese investment will amount to a large part of Greenland’s GDP, giving China an outsized influence that can be used for other purposes,” said Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College’s Institute for Strategy.
Rahbek-Clemmensen fears China could obtain significant influence in the country and be the critical driver in disbanding a military base from the island.
The U.S. Air Force’s Thule Air Base, located in the northwestern part of Greenland and home to the 821st Air Base Group, a unit of the 21st Space Wing. The space unit operates systems related to missile warning, space surveillance and space control from the base; forces also operate the Upgraded Early Warning Radar, used to track incoming ballistic missiles, and has been under operation since World War II.
Reuters said Greenland is strategically vital for the US military, as the waters around the country are the shortest routes from North America to Europe.
Also, the base houses a monstrous 10,000-foot runway and what the Pentagon claims is “the northernmost deep water port in the world.”
“A Chinese presence in Greenland would complicate the U.S. position on the island — ultimately it is not impossible to imagine that China could pressure the Greenlandic government to ask the Americans to leave or demand permission to get a Chinese military or dual-use presence there,” Rahbek-Clemmensen noted.
“We continue to notice the significant interest in Greenland by the Chinese,” a U.S. defense official told Defense News when asked about the issue.
“China has made no secret of their efforts to have a presence in the Arctic region, specifically Greenland. The Chinese government is attempting to leverage overseas investments to ensure China’s economic growth and geopolitical influence, but lack legitimate concern for the long-term prosperity of Greenland and her people,” the official said.
While Denmark has publicly avoided the embarrassing issue, Danish officials behind the scenes asked Greenland to cancel the bid. However, earlier this summer, the officials in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, announced CCCC as one of five finalists for the contract.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen recently met with Greenlandic Prime Minister Kim Kielsen to encourage removing the Chinese bid, which one solution that was debated, is that Denmark funds the project if a non-Chinese bid is chosen.
With the deadline fast approaching, no final decisions have been made on the airport deal, said Defense News.
“The Parliament of Greenland has been presented with a bill that it will consider during its Fall Session on the framework conditions for the construction, operation and financing of the airports in Nuuk, Ilulissat and Qaqortoq,” said Greenland’s head of representation in the U.S., Inuuteq Holm Olsen. “The Second and Third reading of the bill is scheduled to take place on October 15 and October 22, 2018.”
China is preparing the Polar Silk Road as a means for quicker trade between Europe, but at the same time avoid Washington’s choke points in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Stay tuned, the final bid for the airport project is fast approaching, and if China is chosen, that could jeopardize the American military presence in the country.