Chilly US-China Relations in the Arctic – 2019 China Focus Essay Contest Runner-up

Relentless waves of derisive replies and criticisms surged in response to another example of President Donald Trump’s signature style of Twitter diplomacy, lashing out at his out-of-the-blue remark that the potential purchase of Greenland is on the cards. The move comes in wake of a Pentagon report in June, highlighting the essentiality of ensuring “competitive military advantages”, as part of their Arctic defense strategy. Danes were highly insulted by this sudden expression of intention by the United States, and consequently his willful cancellation of the state visit, after weeks of organising and preparing for the then-upcoming presidential visit in September 2019.

It was clear from the outset that the United States were unlikely to successfully see through with the purchase. Revisiting history, Denmark turned the United States down in 1946 when they offered to purchase Greenland for $100 million. Their earlier proposal occurred at a time when Greenland was perceived as a barren land and an economic burden on Denmark, and this position has slowly changed over the century, with global warming granting Greenland increasing economic significance in the region . Many politicians took President Donald Trump’s proposal as a joke, including the preceding Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

The proposal to purchase Greenland, if contemplated with greater thought, is an open declaration by the Trump administration that it will begin to realise its political and economic intentions within the Arctic. Situated north of the Atlantic Ocean, Greenland has long been sighted as a strategic location serving as the continental land connecting Europe with North America, a key reason driving the construction of a United States Air Force military base at Thule, Greenland, back in 1943. These proved instrumental in their participation of the Cold War, as Thule operated missile detection systems as the first line of defence against potential attacks from Russia. The Arctic was lost from international attention for decades after, but global warming, along with the recent emergence of a new world order, has given the area a renewed lease of life.

Global warming has made it now increasingly plausible for ships to ply the shipping routes through the Northwest Passage in North America and the Northern Sea Route in Europe; by 2030, the United States Navy predicts that there will be significant opportunities for shipping along these routes, the Northern Sea Route expected to have the greatest expansion in summer with at least nine weeks of open waters with little to no sea ice.

Most significantly, a United States Geological Survey study estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of the Earth’s natural gas reserves can be found beneath the Arctic, along with rare earth metals, diamonds and other valuable minerals. China’s inclusion of the Arctic shipping routes within their ‘Polar Silk Road’ endeavor, and Russia’s flag-planting in the North Pole furthering their maritime claims, are therefore perceived as threats to the present Arctic order, edging the Trump administration on to pay extra attention to the Arctic region in maintaining their present hold on global power.

Realistically, China is well aware of its limitations on physical claims to the Arctic. Unlike the United States and Russia, China is not an Arctic state, only becoming an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013 after several failed attempts in pursuing their interests in the region. Unlike its territorial claims on historical basis in the South China Sea, China will face insurmountable challenges in exercising hard power in the Arctic region.

Nonetheless, this has done little to halt their ambitions in the region. More than a decade ago, China had already recognised the importance of the Arctic, expanding on their scientific ambitions by establishing the Yellow River Station in Svalbard, Norway, in 2004, conducting glacial and atmospheric research in the region. What remains less known is that in the year prior, MV Xue Long undertook an Arctic expedition via the Bering Strait, a seemingly innocent passage to further their scientific aims and research objectives. Since then, China has been careful with their polar ambitions, only providing modest funding for their polar activities. Only 20 percent of its polar programme funding is set aside for Arctic activities and expeditions, with the rest going to the Antarctic.

With climate change providing new economic opportunities for the Arctic states, China finds itself at a great disadvantage. Yet it refuses to accept its geography as destiny, evident from its recent white paper on the ‘Polar Silk Road’ where economic concerns have started to take shape in China’s Arctic diplomacy. It showed evidence of China’s political understanding on its limited maritime claims, and consequently its long-term vision of establishing soft power over the region in the form of diversified economic investments. Chinese companies had begun to expand on commercial opportunities in the region, stepping up their mining interests in Greenland, pursuing involvement in bridge construction projects across the Rombaken fiord in the Arctic Circle, and exploring the viability of Arctic shipping routes through the Northern Sea. 

In fact, China finds shared goals with Russia in the place of the Arctic, in combating the international order placed forth by United States. Due to the sluggish economy following economic sanctions from the annexation of Crimea, Russia found itself reluctantly accepting the offer of Chinese investment in Russia’s developments in the Arctic region. State-owned Chinese companies have signed binding deals with Novatek, Russia’s top privately-run gas producer, to buy a 20 percent stake in an Arctic liquefied natural gas project known as Yamal LNG 2, ensuring its future bankroll after the Northern Sea Route obtains feasibility in the near future.

Beyond economic purposes, China has also promoted its position as a torchbearer on climate change, stepping up to lead the rest of the world where the Trump administration presently takes a backseat on. By the end of 2017, China had also already carried out eight scientific expeditions in the Arctic, and their multi-disciplinary observation systems and capabilities built up over the decade ensured their wide coverage of the atmospheric and geologic systems of the Arctic. Due to their multifaceted approach in the Arctic, China had gradually gained an instrumental role in formulating multilateral affairs within the Arctic region, widening their sphere of influence over the region despite their seemingly minor political position as an observer in the Arctic Council.

Interestingly, China repeatedly employs the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to legitimate its utilisation of sea routes and exploration of resources through the Arctic, pursuing a multilateral approach and conveying the vision of a shared political space with the rest of the world. Although their principles in the Arctic region comes at odds with their actions in the South China Sea, it showed that China will continue to apply what it deems fit for its personal political interests, especially with China’s ambitions of expanding its naval power across the globe. China’s ambiguous intentions over the region created a point of contention for the United States, who subsequently openly stepped up its scramble for the Arctic. 

Mike Pompeo openly stated that Washington would continue to ‘fortify America’s security and diplomatic presence’ in the Arctic, through military exercises and use of icebreakers. Drawing parallels to China’s highly contested claims in their neighbouring waters, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Beijing’s behaviour in the Arctic as aggressive, and potentially leading to a new South China Sea conflict. Although these claims were viewed as exaggerated and unfounded, it was yet another media play to outline China as a dangerous character in the Arctic region, and to promote its geopolitical position as the guardian of the north seas.

But Washington’s moves do not appear to be tit-for-tat for now. China has been gradually expanding its soft power in the region, while the United States have responded with hard power. Washington has pursued a hard military approach, despite having strong military partners in the region due to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Denmark, in particular, remains a strong military partner. While this is physically assertive, these have not been an open challenge to China’s economic clout in the region. 

Unlike China, there has been little talk of American investment in the Arctic region, other than the proposed purchase of Greenland by President Donald Trump, a move that may have been sparked off decades of conducting business as a real estate mogul and interpreting the world through acquisitions. Although the Northern Sea Route through Europe to Asia may not be as economically important to the United States as it is to China, the United States could potentially play a more active role in positioning itself as an alternative to China for investment projects in the region.

Contrary to the implied meanings, economic competition between these two greatest powers will likely promote stability in the region, as assets and economic opportunities are diversified among several players, allotting a better balance to political and economic power in the Arctic. Economic participation is Washington’s presently overlooked strategy in containing China’s goals in the Arctic. First and foremost, expanding their investment in the area allows the United States to be a key driver in unlocking the resources in the Arctic region, potentially mirroring the profitable conclusion from its extraction of resources in the state of Alaska more than a century ago. 

Strategically, sharing the economic opportunities with China hinders China from realising its goal as a major investor in the region. The United States may not be able to stop China from getting a foot through the door, but they could hinder China’s ambitions to obtain political power through a dominant economic position within the Arctic. Here, competition for resources may eventually materialise in the form of peaceful cooperation, and the United States stands to obtain the upper hand in economic partnerships due to its position as an Arctic state, a position that was obtained from its purchase of unexplored Alaska in 1867.

Fast-forward 152 years, and the United States seeks to expand its territory through a proposed acquisition of Greenland. Given the impracticality of this in present day, was the proposed purchase of Greenland a joke, or a well-timed rhetorical statement to keep Russia and China at bay? If anything, this perceived laughing matter only served to cement perceptions of the soft power exerted by the United States as a keeper of world order, which has increasingly been challenged by China seeking political interests in the Arctic through economic instruments. 

Unfortunately, this was done at the expense of Denmark, a small country that cannot afford the smallest rift in relations with the United States, its largest non-European trade partner. Denmark’s commitment to preserving good foreign relations with the United States is clearly shown in its recent approval of establishment of a US consulate in Greenland mere months after the diplomatic row, and possibly an intended outcome by the Trump administration from the very beginning.

(Image by Goumbik from Pixabay)

Subscribe to us to receive our China Focus Newsletters!

The following two tabs change content below.

Hui Ping Ng

Ng Hui Ping is a master's candidate at Zhejiang University from Singapore.

Start typing and press Enter to search