President Donald Trump has floated the idea of buying Greenland multiple times. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has called the notion “absurd.” It has triggered a diplomatic row of sorts.
Yet Trump’s interest in Greenland is just the latest indication of the island’s increasing geopolitical importance. It is even drawing the eye of China.
Greenland’s strategic value is linked tightly to new North Atlantic shipping lanes opening up due to melting polar ice caps. The new lanes have dramatically decreased maritime trade travel times, which generally includes traveling through the Panama or Suez canals to circumnavigate the world.
Greenland, which is home to nearly 58,000 people, is the largest island in the world, and 80% of its 811,000 square miles are ice-capped. The island’s residents are Danish, but they have governed by self-rule since 1979.
Greenland’s largest economic drivers are fishing and tourism, but the island has drawn rising interest due to its vast natural resources, including coal, zinc, copper, iron ore and rare minerals. There have been expeditions to assess the extent of the nation’s resources, but the true quantity is unknown.
China, which is embroiled in a trade battle with the U.S., previously showed interest in developing a “Polar Silk Road” of trade through the North Atlantic shipping lanes. China proposed building new airports and mining facilities on Greenland in 2018, but eventually withdrew its bid.
“If [China were to] have a significant investment in a country that is so strategically important for so many countries, they would have influence there,” said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center.
“If you invest a lot in a small island country, you could have a lot of sway there.”
Denmark has “publicly expressed concern about China’s interest in Greenland,” a Pentagon report warned earlier this year.
“Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report said.
Greenland is also in an advantageous location for the U.S. armed forces. The U.S. and Greenland have had an agreement since World War II to house American military assets on the island.
Thule Air Base, America’s northernmost Air Force base, has operated since 1943 in Greenland and has a ballistic missile early warning system and satellite tracking system.
Trump’s administration is not the first to make an inquiry about buying the island. President Harry Truman expressed desire to acquire the island in 1946 for $100 million in gold, and earlier attempts to buy the island stretch back to 1867.
While the world’s most powerful nations are looking to get a leg up in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions, experts caution that there could be a dire impact on the area.
“There are economic opportunities similar to Greenland across the Arctic,” said Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
The region is home to “some of the largest iron ore and zinc mines in the world,” she said, but “there is a cost to the exploration, a cost to the environment and the people who live in the Arctic and Greenland.”