Greenland may well develop into a large exporter of uranium. In the south of the island, rare earth deposits are among the largest in the world. Huge reserves of oil and gas are hidden off shore.
And yes, London Mining, a British mining company, and the Greenland self-government authority are luring the Chinese to invest $2 billion in an iron-ore mine close to the Greenland ice sheet some 175 kilometers north of Nuuk, the capital.
But let us stay cool as we discuss these prospects. Farfetched speculation is currently emanating from think-tanks and commentators on how Chinese military bases and Greenland’s rapid independence from Denmark are likely offshoots of these industrial projects.
Such speculation is less than helpful. Greenland and its population of 57,000 are preparing for difficult transitions and a potential influx of foreign workers, but it is not the end of the world. Chinese investment may provide state-run Chinese companies with political leverage on the small and economically weak Selfrule Authority, but decision-makers in Nuuk are aware of these risks. They are weighing the pros and cons of Chinese investments, just like other governments.
Greenland’s population may be small, but Greenland is a democracy and remains firmly within the Kingdom of Denmark and the security sphere of NATO and the United States.
The confusion for many observers probably stems from a misreading of Greenland’s relation to Denmark and the Arctic conundrum. Eight states have territory in the Arctic, where newly accessible riches abound. Inuits, Indians, Sami and the peoples of northern Russia all have a say, while a host of non-Arctic states, including China, Singapore and India, also crave influence. China now claims to be a “near-Arctic” state with interests in new Arctic shipping routes, oil, minerals and climate change.
Add to this the complexity of Greenland. The island was granted home rule in 1979 and self rule in 2009 — including full rights to exploit and administer its abundant natural resources, plus the right to full independence from Denmark should the people of Greenland so choose. The currency, however, remains the Danish krone, and Greenland is still subject to the Danish constitution and to Denmark’s foreign and security policies.
Since the 2009 self-rule agreement, Greenland has chased the resulting opportunities. Greenland is poor and the size of the annual subsidy from Copenhagen, currently covering half of Greenland’s budget, was frozen in 2009. New sources of income are badly needed.
Greenland’s politicians have made visits to China and South Korea and have invited investments from other countries. The global oil industry has been successfully courted.
Meanwhile, a constitution-writing process has begun in Nuuk and moves have been made to dispatch diplomats from Nuuk to foreign capitals. In January, the ruling party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, confirmed that Greenland’s independence from Denmark remain its main political objective. Shortly after that, elections were called for March 12. No wonder outside observers are confused.
But Greenland is not about to claim independence any time soon. It took 30 years to go from home rule to self rule. Ask any politician in Nuuk when independence should come — as we have done repeatedly — and the answer will be vague, long and hinting at perhaps 40 to 50 years from now. Independence is a vision cherished for centuries, but opinions differ, and for the majority in Greenland there are more pressing issues. Poverty, health and education, to name a few.
Also, independence for many people in Greenland does not encompass severing practical and social links to Denmark. Most families in Greenland have close family ties to Denmark. Ten percent of the population lives in Denmark; they study, work or are being treated at hospitals there for free. Three centuries of trade, intermarriage and royal visits go a long way.
The real question for many today is really how to square formal independence with a continuation of these bonds. When on rare occasions the details of independence are discussed, the focus is on sovereignty, the ability to run one’s own foreign policy and the right to speak without restraints, but not on disconnecting the real-life links to Denmark.
Greenland recognizes the stability provided by Denmark’s status as a trusted member of the international community, by its solid economy and its Navy, which provides for protection of Greenland’s sovereignty, fisheries control and for search-and-rescue operations in the vast territory. Such is reality: complex, unwritten and confusing.
How, when and on what legal basis any future arrangement between Greenland and Denmark may eventually be shaped is really anybody’s guess. There is plenty of time to think of something clever.
The strength of the present arrangement is that it allows for fluid transformations to both nations’ mutual benefit. Day-to-day operations are often spiced with difficulties — Denmark and Greenland are currently quarrelling over possible uranium mining and a potential influx of perhaps 3,000 Chinese workers.
But these diversions will be overcome. Greenland remains on course, even if the way ahead looks bumpy.
Martin Breum, a journalist with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, is the author of When the Ice Disappears, about Denmark’s role in the modern Arctic. Jorgen Chemnitzis a photographer and a political columnist in Nuuk.