The promise of Greenland

Inhospitable Greenland is no longer a geopolitical wasteland. New opportunities are spawning competition for the island.

Qassiarsuk Bay, in southern Greenland.
Qassiarsuk Bay, in southern Greenland. Credit: Martin Zwick / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

As the end of the first millennium approached, many people were gripped by pessimism. They thought that God might decide to bring down the curtain on mankind. If He did so, were they ready to face the Last Judgment?

On many a Northern shoreline, there were local reasons for gloom, especially in monasteries. As they were likely to be a rich source of plunder, they were a favourite target for Norse raiders. In fear of the menacing mainsails, monks would often pray for succour: ‘A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine.’ Often, God did not seem to be listening. But one Viking chieftain must have had a sense of humour, perhaps in compensating for his failure in navigation. While many of his colleagues steered their men to rich pickings in fertile lands, he arrived at a bleak and icebound coast, behind which stretched one of the most inhospitable locations on the globe. He christened it ‘Greenland.’ 

A few Vikings did form settlements. They did not endure. In the late Middle Ages, the Portuguese were intrepid explorers. They even reached Greenland. They did not stay. The only inhabitants were Eskimos, now known as Inuit, who learned how to survive, just. Even today, Greenland is the most scantily-populated area on Earth. For centuries, sovereignty was claimed by the Norsemen’s descendants, first Norway, then Denmark. As almost all of it seemed to consist of nearly 900,000 square miles of ice, it is hardly surprising that no imperialists took an interest. Greenland is now quasi-independent, though subsidised by the Danes. Until recently, it seemed to be a land without geopolitics.

This is no longer the case. Apropos of humour, it was that notorious jokester Donald Trump who brought Greenland into the headlines for the first time, by offering to buy it for one billion dollars. He may have hoped that the Louisiana Purchase and the Alaska Purchase would be followed by the Greenland Purchase, guaranteeing him a place in history. It was not to be, for two reasons. First, the locals treated the offer with derision. Second, Mr Trump’s price was least two noughts too low. Greenland is not just an ice-cube. It possesses immense riches.

Almost everywhere one looks, modern life depends on rare earths and scarce minerals. Of the latter, Lithium is the best, known and there are seventeen rare earths, without which contemporary society could not function. From batteries to satellites, consumer electronics to military hardware, electric cars to almost all other forms of green technology, rare earths are crucial. It is estimated that between now and 2050, the demand for them will increase at least tenfold. The country which controls the supply is in a strong position to put pressure on other nations. Until recently, it seemed that mankind would once again be a victim of Divine black humour in the positioning of vital materials. The oil supplies of the Middle East have been a recurrent source of strategic and economic instability. Oil has declined in importance, and that will continue. But before the West could relax, along came rare earths, and China.

The Chinese are believed to possess almost forty per cent of the world’s supplies of rare earths. Between them, the US and Australia have five per cent. China is responsible for sixty per cent of rare earth production. Ninety-eight per cent of the EU’s rare earths come from China. India and Vietnam also have major supplies of rare earths, but the Chinese have been quicker to exploit their holdings. ‘Exploit’ could prove to be the correct term. The Chinese have already used rare earths to put pressure on Lockheed Martin over arms supplies to Taiwan and to threaten Japan. But they have a problem. Those figures exclude Greenland. It possesses immense quantities of rare earths. and scarce minerals. Although no-one has yet worked out how much – conditions are not ideal for geological exploration – known holdings could provide at least twenty-five per cent of the West’s needs for the indefinite future. Greenland also has vast resources of well-known minerals, including gold, copper, iron and lead, plus oil, plus seas full of fish. The 60,000 Greenlanders are about to become seriously rich. Their countries’ annual income from mineral rights will greatly exceed Donald Trump’s billion.

The Chinese are aware of this. For some time, they have interested themselves in the Arctic, talking in terms of an Arctic equivalent of the Silk Road. Following this up, they have tried to open discussions with the Greenlanders, who have been admirably unresponsive. In the era of post-war partnerships, it may seem tactless to refer back to the era of Japan’s so-called Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. But there are obvious parallels between that monstrous hypocrisy and China’s current efforts. This has not escaped the Greenlanders’ notice. Although the inhabitants may be unaccustomed to high-level diplomacy, they saw the Chinese coming. An icy climate obviously encourages clear thinking. 

Moreover, there is an alternative. Mining conglomerates from the US, the UK, Canada and Australia are already involved with Greenland. Relations are cordial. There have been some recent problems over uranium mining. The party that did best in the recent Greenland election is opposed to it. But that is a minor issue. The fact that it can be treated as such is an indication of the country’s mineral-based economic prospects. There is no reason why disagreements over uranium should impair harmonious dealings with the potential stakeholders in rare earths, or other minerals. The four countries above form what is left of the Five Eyes intelligence network, though though its fifth partner New Zealand has weakened its ties with the organisation. While this is not an explicitly anti-Chinese alliance, everyone is aware of Chinese pressure in a range of areas. From the days of Richard Nixon, far-sighted Western statesmen have hoped to entice China into new international frameworks based on trade, cooperation and legality. At its most optimistic, this could be described as a work in progress. For progress, it often seems, read ‘regress.’

The Polar Research and Policy Institute, under its Director Dr Dwayne Menendes, is encouraging Five Eyes involvement, pointing out that climate change is making it easier to use Arctic waters as trade routes. On Greenland itself, melting glaciers have meant more accessibility for geologists and miners. Over the centuries, the largest island on the planet has been disregarded: the place that put the ‘ultima’ into Ultima Thule. It is no longer wise or safe to neglect this vast source of wealth. It might even be time to rename the country, drawing on just one of its mineral deposits. What about Goldland?  


Bruce Anderson