U.S. Says Arctic No Longer Immune from Geopolitics As It Invests $12m in Greenland

USS Hopper
USS Hopper (DDG 70) off the coast of Homer, Alaska during Operation Northern Edge 2017. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The U.S. wants to become the “partner of choice” in the Arctic using “old-fashioned diplomatic tradecraft” to safeguard its interest in the region. It hopes an aid package will jumpstart its relationship with Greenland. 

In a call with Arctic experts and journalists the U.S. State Department provided a detailed update of the current administration’s Arctic strategy. An unnamed senior state department official outlined the U.S.’ priorities in the Arctic, especially vis-à-vis Russia and China, and shared details on last week’s announcement to provide a $12.1m aid package for Greenland. 

In a continuation of previous policy documents and speeches on the Arctic under the Trump administration, the official failed to mention the impact and importance of climate change on the region. In fact, during a one-hour call the official did not use the word climate change, or an equivalent term, a single time. 

The return of geopolitics to the Arctic

The U.S. sees a new strategic reality in the Arctic with geopolitics returning across the globe and to the region. “The Arctic is not immune from the implications of these changes,” the official explained. According to the State Department, both Russia and China are driving this change as there are growing incentives for the two countries to challenge and clash with the U.S. in the region.

While the U.S. recognizes Russia’s legitimate interests in the region and appreciates the cooperation in the Arctic Council with regards to e.g. oil spill response and pollution issues, it rejects China’s status as a “near-Arctic state.”

Concerns about Russia’s military buildup

The U.S. has growing concerns about Russia’s Arctic military buildup, featured extensively in reporting by HNN. Russia’s military presence in the region has increased “dramatically in recent years” through the establishment of new and refurbished air bases, air and coastal defense missile systems, radar installations, deep water ports and new Arctic commands and brigades. Just last week, Russia conducted the first-ever high altitude paratrooper jump over the Arctic. “There is some genuine and legitimate concern there on the part of the United States and our allies and partners about that behavior in the Arctic,” the State Department elaborated. 

China outside and inside the Arctic

The State Department’s concerns about China’s involvement in the Arctic stem less from its activities in the region and more from its disregard and violation of international norms and law outside the region, e.g. in the South China Sea. “And you can see that in the way they’ve behaved in other parts of the world, whether it’s the South China Sea or Sri Lanka or Djibouti or elsewhere,” the U.S. official highlighted.

“We’ve also seen across the globe that China’s soft-power tools often have a sharp edge when deployed by the PRC. It’s weaponized its state capitalism in an effort to secure control of critical infrastructure such as ports and telecommunications networks.” 

Even within the Arctic region China’s actions are already causing concern according to the U.S. “China has demonstrated a willingness to use coercion and influence operations and other methods to get what it wants, including in the Arctic,” the State Department asserted. 

The official pointed to the recent experience of the Faroe Islands. China had issued threats to drop a trade agreement when the Faroe Islands did not sign a contract for the construction of a 5G network by Huawei

Becoming the partner of choice in the Arctic

In light of these developments, the U.S. aims to increase its engagement across the region and “become the partner of choice for Arctic states.” It hopes that the $12.1m aid package, developed in consultation with the Kingdom of Denmark and the Government of Greenland, will “jumpstart this new beginning.” 

The official stressed that the funding package was in no way to be interpreted as the beginnings of an attempt to “purchase” Greenland as President Trump had suggested in 2019. “Our intentions here are to deepen the partnership that exists already between the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland, and the United States,” the official explained. 

Three areas of funding

The funding will be used in three areas: Energy and resource development, education capacity building, and rural sustainable development. 

With regard to energy and resource development the U.S. hopes to “encourage competitive and transparent investment by companies, promote sound mining and energy sector governance” and promote renewable energy technologies. 

Education capacity building will focus specifically on the tourism and hospitality sector as well as sustainable land and fisheries management. This aspect goes hand in hand with creating economic opportunities e.g. through sustainable and eco-tourism, in rural communities.

The funding will be administered not solely by the U.S. State Department but in cooperation with USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Department of the Interior and Commerce. 

Strategic importance of Greenland

The official highlighted the historical strategic role of Greenland and how it is becoming increasingly important again. The island played a critical part of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, which as a result of Russia’s buildup of military forces in the High North is reemerging as a strategic importance. “We need to be in a position with our allies to be able to ensure that we can cross the Atlantic in the event of a crisis,” the State Department representative pointed out. In this regard the briefing also pointed out the long history of cooperation at Thule Air Force Base in the northwest of Greenland. 

The importance of Greenland also extends to foreign powers, namely China, acquiring critical infrastructure on the island. “[China] has tried in the past to [...] wiggle their way into Greenland in unhelpful ways by acquiring critical infrastructure that would be problematic for the United States and our NATO allies and, of course, the Kingdom of Denmark,” the official explained. As specific examples the briefing highlighted the 2016 attempt by China to purchase the old American naval base Gronnedal or its efforts to get involved in the construction of airports in Greenland. 

The State Department official warned that “China has weaponized their state capitalism in an effort to secure control of critical infrastructure and dual-use infrastructure. China has demonstrated a willingness to use coercion and influence operations and other methods to get what it wants.”