Blowing hot and cold over Greenland

Editorial | Mary Ma 20 Aug 2019

Denmark's former prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmuseen called US President Donald Trump's idea to buy Greenland an "April Fool's Day joke." But White House adviser Larry Kudlow insisted his boss was serious.

And now, Trump has confirmed his interest, characterizing it as "a large real estate deal."

Trump may have some experience wheeling and dealing in property. Acquiring Greenland, however, would be far more complex.

The massive island located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans is rich in oil, uranium and rare earths. As ice melts amid global warming, these natural reserves become accessible.

Although the United States has an air base, located some 1,200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, in the autonomous part of Denmark, China has stayed ahead of America in establishing access to the natural resources.

Jiangxi Zhongrun Mining reportedly obtained mining permission in Greenland in 2009 to become the first Chinese company to have secured the right.

Then in 2016, mainland firm Shenghe Resources Holdings made a further breakthrough, acquiring 11 to 12.5 percent of Greenland Minerals - an Australian mining company based in Perth - to become the largest single shareholder of the firm that has access to Greenland's rich rare earth reserves.

According to Greenland Minerals' June report, the Kavenefjeld site is projected to produce a significant amount of rare earths, including neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium.

While Trump's bid may be too little, too late, his predecessor in the mid-1940s was also less than successful. Then-US president Harry Truman offered to buy Greenland for US$100 million (HK$780 million), but was refused by Copenhagen, which is responsible for Greenland's defense.

In response to Trump's sudden expression of interest in the world's largest island, Greenland's foreign ministry tweeted that it is "open for business, not for sale."

As Trump is more than likely to land in Denmark on his European visit next month, his Danish host should tell him to give up his less than amusing idea - should he ever bring it up in person.

Nonetheless, the whole episode does revive world attention on what's been going on quietly in this frontier that has been at the center of geopolitical rivalry in modern history.

Although Truman failed to include Greenland as yet another American state after World War II, Washington later secured an agreement to build an airforce base in Thule, to monitor missile and space movement above the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

More than half a century later, hawks at the White House view China's rise as a more serious security threat than Russia.

Without much publicity, Chinese companies have been trying to increase stakes in Greenland. In addition to mining mineral reserves, mainland-based construction enterprises also tendered for contracts to build airstrips on the island, although they lost to Danish competitors - amid reports of opposition from Washington.

According to Forbes, US ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands paid a visit to a remote site where a team from the US Geological Survey had been working with Greenland Minerals - after executives from the firm and Shenghe met in Perth on how to market the rare earths discovered in Kvanefjeld.

As the globe warms, so does geopolitical rivalry in the Arctic Circle.

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