24 September 2019

Following China’s trails through Northern snows again, this time in NATO countries!

Mircea Mocanu

China is very interested in rare natural resources, and global warming opens the way for exploiting the world’s arctic regions. Not only Russia’s natural gas and oil have significance, but also the still too little explored deposits of a huge territory, which is literally waiting a thaw in order to show its riches: Greenland.

Image source: Mediafax

China’s interest in Europe’s arctic territories

An apparently trivial piece of news, which is not meant to incite, but actually to open a subject of actual interest and for the future: the interest of authorities in Beijing for resources in the waters and ground of the Arctic. The interest is more general, to study and capitalize on the Far North, which has been neglected for a long time from many points of view because of extremely difficult weather conditions. The news is that, at the beginning of June 2019, the China Communications Constructions Company (CCCC) announced its withdrawal from the process of attributing renovation works for two airports in Greenland. Big deal!

However, if we search through publicly-available information, we will observe that China’s presence in civil projects from Northern Europe goes back to at least 1925, when China signed the Spitsbergen Treaty and started to become involved and take part in international activities regarding the Arctic. In the 80s, the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) in Shanghai extended its arctic researches, and in 1988, China’s Science Academy established the Chinese Journal for Polar Studies. China’s first polar expedition took place in 1984 and, since then, China carried out approximately 30 expeditions to the Far North.

According to official documents of the government in Beijing, China’s purpose is to “understand, protect, develop and take part in the Arctic’s governance (generally-speaking), in order to ensure the common interests of all countries and of the international community overall in the Arctic, and to promote sustainable development in the Arctic”. With regards to the Far North, Beijing is engaged in research regarding geology, geography, hydrology, meteorology, marine ice, biology, ecology, geophysics and marine chemistry.

Of course, the attention given to natural resources is still in the spotlight, and Chinese authorities are seeking the best ways of promoting their own interest. Chinese rear admiral Yin Zhuo said in 2010 that “the Arctic belongs to all the nations on the globe, because no country has sovereignty over it… China must plan an indispensable role in exploring the Arctic, because we know have a fifth of the world’s populations”. It seems that the Chinese official confused the Arctic with Antarctica, because in the Far North between 88% and 95% of resources are found in the Exclusive Economic Areas (EEA) of the five states whose coasts are part of the Arctic waters (one way to say it, because they are mostly frozen). It is unlikely that Beijing will the challenge the Law of the Sea, which enshrines the rights on EEAs, which suggests that China needs to partner with Arctic countries in order to achieve its goals, as I previously wrote regarding its cooperation with Russia.

The Chinese presence in Norway and Iceland

More recently, in 2003, China signed an agreement with Norway to establish a Chinese scientific research station in the Svalbard Archipelago (Spitzbergen). The research station, built by PRIC, named Huangzhe Zhan (The Yellow River Station), was operationalized in 2004, at Ny Alesund, and was the first installation of its type established by China in the Arctic. The station’s objective is to study glaciers, research the atmosphere, the aurora borealis, microbes in the glaciar ice sheet and related fields. Diplomatic sources explained at the time of its inauguration that locations situated at high latitudes also offer the best visibility for artificial satellites, due to Earth’s shape. Later, at the Arctic Centre Conference held in 2017, in Reykjavik, Beijing expressed interest to establish a similar station in Greenland.

At the same time, in collaboration with Iceland, PRIC opened the China-Iceland Arctic Scientific Observatory, in island-country’s north. Chinese presence in Iceland can be exemplified through a detail: the Chinese embassy in Reykjavik has the biggest number of employees of all diplomatic missions to this country! This is probably a clue regarding Beijing’s perspectives for the future of Iceland as a strategic node in the Arctic. Another detail, this time of political nature: currently, the Icelandic Government is controlled by the Socialist Party, and Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said in November 2018 that her country should withdraw from NATO: “My personal stance is that we should withdraw from NATO, so I am critical of any increase in the North Atlantic’s militarization. But our government will honour the security policy we convened on and a part of that policy is NATO membership”. Later, Katrin Jakobsdottir did not restate the idea of withdrawing from the alliance (maybe she received a phone call…), but highlighted that “the Arctic should remain an area of minimal tensions”. It should be specified that Iceland has no armed forces, but is a strategic member of the alliance, because the island is used by NATO in frequent marine surveillance missions in the North Atlantic.  In fact, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, said at the beginning of June in Reykjavik that Iceland’s “strategic position in the Atlantic helps the connection of North America and Europe”.

Special opportunities in Greenland

The political context favours China’s access to Greenland, which is an integral part of Denmark. Let us see for how long, because in 2009 local authorities obtained the status of self-governance, meaning autonomy from the government in Copenhagen in all areas, except defence and foreign policy. This status offers Greenland, which also has its own flag, the option to win full independence if political and economic conditions are met. Grand perspectives open for Greenland here, due to global warming, which improves the conditions in which the island’s mineral resources are exploited, as well as the climate conditions necessary for a normal economic life. That is why the Danish Government’s stance is delicate, because it needs to offer Greenlanders both improving political and economic/financial conditions, in order to convince them to remain a part of the Danish state. But these “favours” are exactly what strengthen Greenland’s capacity to exist as an independent state. On the other hand, if Copenhagen adopts a tougher stance towards the authorities in Nuuk (formerly Gothaab), they would only further galvanize Greenlanders, which would hasten the separation from Denmark in accordance with their growing economic capabilities. Without Greenland, which it has supported for decades, Denmark would cease being an Arctic state and would lose considerable resources, which only now have begun to be efficiently exploited.

So, Greenland is in a situation where it can promise great economic opportunities to those who have considerable funds and are willing to invest in the Arctic. Well, the most suitable candidates are the Chinese. Beijing is not only interested in mineral resources, but also in tourism, investments into infrastructure, research. In the area of arctic tourism, for example, the number of Chinese visitors rose from 9,500 in 2007 to 86,000 in 2017, and the authorities in Nuuk seriously consider encouraging this economic area of recent interest.

In 2013, Denmark signed an extended strategic partnership with China, which also includes bilateral cooperation in the Arctic. Currently, the Danish social-democrat government, which won the elections on June 5, 2019, also shows availability towards widening Greenland’s powers concerning foreign relations, so the way for extending Chinese presence in Greenland is favoured.

Regarding mineral resources, some Chinese companies are associated with Australian firms, based on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA). Examples include: the Shenghe Resources (Shenghe Ziyuan) company cooperates with Greenland Minerals and Energy (in which it holds 12.5% of its shares) on exploiting the rare earth, uranium and zinc mine in Kvanefjeld; China Nonferrous Metal signed an agreement with Perth-based company Ironbark to exploit zinc in the Citronen Fjord, in northern Greenland. Separately, Hong-Kong’s General Nice owns the rights to exploit iron in the Isua region, in West Greenland.

With regards to these promising openings, Greenland authorities did not have any negative reaction towards the White Paper on the Arctic, published by the Beijing executive in January 2018. More than that, the two sides are preparing to establish diplomatic missions in Nuuk and Beijing, respectively, and Greenland Prime Minister Kim Kielsen visited China in 2017, in order to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the fields of fishing, mining, tourism and other economic sectors.

It must be specified that the benevolent attitude towards China is shared by all the parties from Greenland’s governing coalition, although they have economic visions which are not exactly identical. On one hand, Greenland’s predictable economic development promises to strengthen the country’s sovereignty. That it is why authorities in Nuuk are also developing strong relations with other, non-European countries, such as neighbouring Canada.

There are, however, limits and obstacles for Greenland’s cooperation with China

Not everything is good news, however. The piece of news mentioned at the beginning of this article, regarding the withdrawal of Chinese offers for the development of two airports in Greenland (Nuuk and Illulisat, with another one planned in the future in Qaqortoq) shows that there are difficulties for Chinese investors in Greenland. They concern local bureaucracy, the uncertainty of the duration for obtaining licenses, the opposition of some communities to the effects of mining, the difficulties in obtaining visas and residency permits for Chinese employees, complications due to the island’s small economy.

There was another failure, with the General Nice company blocked by the Copenhagen government from purchasing the port installation in Gronnedal, previously abandoned by the US Navy, which had built this small-size military port.

Like in the matter of Chinese participation to airport installations, the Danish Government has also manifested restraint in this case due to the perspective of inconveniencing the interests of the US, which operate the Thule Air Base in North Greenland. The Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy, presented to the US Congress in June 2019, reconfirms the importance of the Thule base for the US and NATO. On the other hand, a report of Denmark’s military information service (DDIS), published in December 2018, showed that China’s diplomatic offensive in Greenland is primarily economic, but there are risks generated by the disproportion between China’s and Greenland’s economies. Put differently, China could “swallow” Greenland from an economic standpoint.

The economic rivalry in Greenland is relevant for security

Therefore, the government in Copenhagen has become concerned with the increase of China’s interests for Greenland and practices an extension of the concept of “defence”, a field in which Denmark can make decisions over the head of authorities in Nuuk, according to the 2009 Self-Governance Agreement (which also includes the Faroe Islands in the same sense).

At the same time, the United States have signed an agreement memorandum with Greenland, in May 2019, for cooperation in developing the island’s mining sector. The document includes the intention to cooperate in actions of aerial hyperspectral research for the purpose of discovering natural resources, especially rare earth deposits in the island’s south.

From a military standpoint, the interests which are at risk are those of the US and NATO, as the US base in Thule becomes essential in the context of intensifying military activities in the Arctic because of Russian aggression. In fact, immediately after CCCC withdrew from the auction for developing the airports, the US Embassy in Copenhagen announced that the United States are interested in investing into Greenland’s defence sector, including in dual-use airports, civilian and military. If there (still) is no trace of a military contradiction with China in Greenland’s territory, there is, however, a competition between Western states and China for Greenland’s economy. On the other hand, a Pentagon report showed that China’s development of its research in the Arctic, in civilian areas, can serve as a platform for Beijing’s future military interests in the region.

In order to not create a vacuum of interest for Greenland, the United States have begun to intensify their own relations with authorities in Nuuk, not only economic but also diplomatic. Therefore, 66 years after the US Consulate in Gothaab was closed in 1953, following Greenland’s incorporation into Denmark, Sung Choi was confirmed in May 2019 by the US Congress as the country’s new representative to Greenland.


Through its entire conduct in the offensive towards the north, China is respecting the political line established in 2010, of promoting cautious policies in the Arctic, in order to not generate negative reactions from arctic states. Therefore, Beijing will extend its presence in the Far North honestly, through civilian activities such as those that were presented.

On the other hand, as it concerns NATO states, this type of activity ensures limiting China’s activity to peaceful areas which respect international treaties and the national laws of said states.

But the Chinese are present in increasing numbers and the increase in this tendency’s relevance has numerous arguments, among which are the following:

  • China’s population offers a huge selection pool to ensure quality personnel for any activity carried out in areas of interest;
  • China has immense funds, which it invests in the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) megaproject. Practically, Beijing is buying as many valuable assets as possible in its areas of interest;
  • the Chinese have patience and perseverance, qualities which offer a historical perspective to any large-scale activity they carry out;
  • the Chinese have tact and know when to serve their interests without bothering, if this is wanted;
  • China manifests flexibility and perfectly adapts to the political and cultural conditions of the country they are extending their presence into.

Presently, it seems that there are no reasons for security concerns regarding China’s presence in NATO’s arctic states, but the development of some civilian areas will strengthen the interests which any country has to protect also through military means. We shall see.


Translated by Ionut Preda