The Security Implications of China-Greenland Relations

By Kenty Dubois

By Kenty Dubois and Alessandro Gagaridis


After the Cold War, the security context in the Arctic has been characterised by the desire of regional States to defuse conflict, which is the result of cooperation on soft-security and scientific issues. This constant collaboration has created trust between the eight Arctic States. Scholars have described this state of affairs as ‘Arctic Exceptionalism’ (Käpylä and Mikkola). However, the interest of new players could challenge this situation.

This article seeks to understand how China could affect the security of the region by focusing on its economic interest in the Arctic and its relations with Greenland. Sino-Greenlandic relations have deepened during the last few years. However, the goals pursued by the two parties are different. China’s interest is purely economic, whereas Greenland’s is political – namely, supporting its quest for independence. In this context, Denmark’s point of view must also be scrutinised when analysing the relations between Greenland and a major power like China, as Denmark remains sovereign over Greenland’s foreign policy.

Theory: Securitisation and Widening of Security

Securitisation is a framework seeking to understand how issues that are not directly and purely military could be perceived as a threat by a State or a community. This is mostly done by analysing speech acts, in which actors claim that an event or another actor threatens their survival or one of their core values. If these actors feel threatened by an event or another actor, it is mostly because it affects their vulnerabilities (Buzan et al., 1998).

When analysing China’s relation with Greenland, we argue that there are three different logics at play, corresponding to three sectors identified by the theory and that we deem useful for our analyses: the economic sector, the societal sector (which is concerned with identity) and the political sector (focused on sovereignty issues). For China: the object of security is economic: it seeks the resources it needs to be a performance economy and to keep rising as a major power. For Greenland: the object is identity, which could be strengthened by gaining independence thanks to income from Chinese companies. On the other hand, as we will explain later, Greenland’s small population, which may not be in possession of adequate qualifications, would prompt foreign companies to bring foreign workers on the island, and this could be seen as a threat towards Greenland’s societal security. Finally, for Denmark, the object is sovereignty over Greenland; that it could lose in case Greenland used capital from China-based firms to lessen its dependence from Denmark and eventually gain full independence.

Energy Security and China’s Interest in Arctic Stability

To understand China’s economic interest in the Arctic, it is first necessary to consider its natural resources. According to the United States Geological Survey (2008), the region is estimated to contain 29% of undiscovered gas and 10% of untapped oil. In other terms: “The total mean undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources of the Arctic is estimated to be approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids” (USGS, 2008). Other resources that can be found in the Arctic and are already traded internationally include gold, zinc, timber and fish (Nordic Council of Minister, 2015).

China’s economy is heavily dependent on oil from the Middle East, which is a rather unstable area (Johnson, 2015). To lessen its vulnerability and to reach its economic goals, Beijing needs to diversify its supply sources, but also to protect them. This is where the Arctic – an area of peace and cooperation rich in natural resources – comes into play, as it reduces the risks of instability existing in other areas like the Middle East or the Malacca Strait, which is affected by violent non-state actors in the form of pirates. Additionally, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) remains free of US presence, although one might expect an American presence in the North Pacific. Finally, sailing through the NSR from Northeast Asia to Northern Europe is theoretically shorter than the usual route through Malacca and Suez.

As such, energy supplies from the NSR and the Arctic can offer a diversification of sources and may become a new supply route (Xing and Bertelsen, 2013); and all this explains why China is interested in preserving the region’s stability. However, from an economic point of view, it must be noted that shipping via the NSR remains complicated due to the lack of infrastructure, the presence of ice and the shallow depths of some straits (Xing and Bertelsen, 2013; Ebinger and Zambetakis, 2009; Blunden, 2012; Lasserre, 2010).

This availability of natural resources combined with the potential to open a new trade route explain why the PRC is economically interested in the Arctic. Thus, it is now possible to examine its current presence in the region.

China’s Economic Presence in the Arctic

By now, China has mainly implemented its economic initiatives in the Arctic alongside Russia. Due to the sanctions imposed by the EU and the US, partnerships between Russian and Western companies have been suspended. This prompted Russia to open its Arctic potential to new investors, including China (Sorensen and Klimenko, 2017, pp. 21). They both felt threatened by the US in their neighbourhood and contest the values upon which the superpower has built the international order (Sorensen and Klimenko, 2017, pp. 23). To date, the main field of Sino-Russian cooperation is oil and gas extraction. Hitherto, this has been rather beneficial to both, as Russia needed financing for its extraction projects and China benefitted from advantageous terms. The second field of interests is the development of the Northern Sea Route, which is now a segment of the One Belt One Road project (Sorensen and Klimenko, 2017, p. 24), which according to some Chinese scholars should actually be named ‘One Belt, One Road, One Circle’ (Huang, 2017A). The recent release of the White Paper has removed any doubt on the matter, since it clearly mentions a ‘Polar Silk Road’ (The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, 2018), which proves the importance that Beijing is giving to the Arctic and the development of the NSR.

China’s Economic Interest for Greenland

In this context, the bilateral relations between Greenland and China started in 2012 when Xu Shaoshi, the Minister of Land and Resources, came to Greenland and made the proposal to create a cartel of rare-earths producing countries (Mereed, 2018).

Indeed, mines such as that at Kvanejfeld could be an opportunity for Beijing to consolidate its rare earths monopoly. A Chinese firm called NFC is investing in Kvanejfeld mine, but it is only a minority investor (Têtu and Lasserre, 2017). China’s Shenghe Resources is partnering with Greenland Minerals and Energy to develop a rare earth and uranium project (Gronholt-Pedersen, 2018). Other Chinese companies are active elsewhere in mineral extraction in Greenland. For instance, General Nice Group is developing the Isua Iron ore project. Other China-based firms such as Jiangxi Copper, Jiangxi Mining Union, China Nordic Mining and China Nonferrous Metal Industry’s Foreign Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd are involved in gold exploration in Illoqortormiut (Têtu and Lasserre, 2017).

According to the interviews made by Lasserre and Têtu (2017), the main factors explaining the presence of Chinese companies are economic. Surprisingly, all the firms present in Greenland have expressed that economic motives are the primary driver explaining their interest, which contrast with the neo-mercantilist framework often taken by scholars (Têtu and Lasserre, 2017). Seemingly, most of these companies benefit from financial backing from the central government, and all benefit from a diplomatic support from it. But despite having some important mineral reserves, Greenland is still far from being a priority for Chinese firms operating in the mineral extraction sector (Têtu, 2016). The environmental norms, the lack of infrastructure and the climatic conditions seem to deter Chinese companies from investing in Greenland. Also, contrary to some beliefs, securing China´s supplies are not a priority for Chinese companies operating there, even though most of those involved in the extractive sector sell the large part of their products in China (Têtu, 2016; Têtu and Lasserre, 2017). Another aspect to consider is that, as seen before, from a Chinese point of view the (geo)political stability of Greenland is an asset. Chinese companies also view “political risks” as being low since Greenland belongs to Denmark, which has a stable political system. But Greenland’s attempt to use its resources exploitation and economic development to gain independence from Denmark could scare Chinese investors away. Given the independence movement, China’s perception of Greenland could change in the near future (Têtu and Lasserre, 2017).

Chinese firms are also involved in infrastructure development: Greenland state-owned company Kalaallit recently shortlisted the China Communications Construction Company to help expand three of the island’s airports, despite Denmark’s opposing views on further Chinese involvement in Greenland (Kirk, 2018).

China-Greenland’s Relation and the Independence Movement

Greenland has been given the possibility to gain independence from Denmark thanks to the self-governance agreement. The matter has been subject to discussion within political fora. Independence could be a good way to strengthen the Greenlandic identity by cutting ties with Denmark. (Dingman, 2014; Jakobsen, 2015). In the short and middle term, Greenland could use the income deriving from exploiting its mineral resources to lessen its dependence on the subsidies it receives from Copenhagen.  However, Greenland would need 20 large-scale mining projects to finance its independence, a situation which is far from today’s reality (Taagholt and Brooks, 2016, pp. 362). A report titled To the Benefit of Greenlandconducted by the Committee for Greenlandic Mineral Resources stated, “Extracting sufficient mineral resources to Greenland’s independence within 20 to 30 years would require such extensive foreign investment and massive inflow of foreign labour that there is a real risk that the current Greenlandic population would become a minority in Greenland” (To the Benefit of Greenland, 2014). Moreover, since a significant portion of the Greenlandic workforce is underqualified and undereducated, independence through resource exploitation does not seem likely in the short term (Taagholt and Brooks, 2016).

Still, Greenland is considering using its resources potential to achieve a greater economic independence from Denmark and hopes it can spill over into political independence, but this create a dilemma between Greenland’s desire for independence and its determination to maintain its traditional lifestyle and culture. The reason is that China has shown a particular interest for Greenland´s natural resources, as the island holds vast reserves of rare earth and iron. If Greenland is considering exploiting its rare earths reserves, China is impossible to circumvent. As a matter of fact, it holds a near monopoly on their processing after their extraction was given up by the West (Taagholt and Brooks, 2016, p.365; Zeuthen, 2017). In the long term, Chinese presence may be perceived as a menace to Greenland’s societal security, and this may ultimately evolve into a securitising act. Indeed, while resource extraction could be a way to achieve independence, it may have drastic consequences on the current lifestyle of Greenlanders, because resource extraction would adversely impact traditional activities that constitute the core of Greenlandic identity, such as berry-picking, fishing and hunting (Dingman, 2014).

The exploitation of resources is not the only aspect that can be perceived as a threat to Greenlandic identity (as the island’s population would have to give up its traditional activities to a certain extent). The possibility of resource exploitation might also attract foreigners, whose arrival might also be perceived as threatening the local identity. On the one hand, given the aforementioned problems affecting Greenland’s labour force, it is clear that Greenland cannot achieve economic independence without foreign workers. On the other hand, Greenlanders could perceive such immigration as a possible threat to different elements constituting their identity such as languages and traditional lifestyle, in accordance with the theoretical framework of societal security that considers migration as a potential threat to local identity. China’s interest could, indeed, represent a threat to Greenlandic identity via immigration.  Given that the Greenlandic workforce is undereducated, China might rather bring its own workers than hire locals (Taagholt and Brooks, 2016). Additionally, a recent change in the Greenlandic legislation over foreign workers is said to be an opportunity for PRC-based firms, as they are now allowed to employ Chinese workers, which reduces the labour costs (Têtu and Lasserre, 2017, p.8; Greenland Parliament, 2012).

To sum up, the future relations between China and Greenland are rather challenging: on the one hand, Greenland wants to use economic development fuelled by Chinese investments to reach independence; on the other hand, however, this creates threats to some vulnerable activities that are specific to the Greenlandic society, and this may lead to a securitisation process concerning the societal security sphere. Such a dynamic may have deep repercussions and hamper dialogue between China and Greenland.

Nevertheless, Siumut (the party which has received the most votes during the last elections) shows openness towards foreign investments; including and especially from China. It also hopes that rising commodity prices will help developing Greenland’s mining sector and that the island will reach independence as a result. The Inuit Ataqatigiit party is also favourable to mining but puts more emphasis on the environment (Gronholt-Pedersen, 2018). As a matter of fact, we must also analyse the relations between Greenland and China in the light of Danish sovereignty and Greenland’s independence vis-à-vis Denmark, which raises the important dimension of political security. For Denmark, sovereignty over Greenland allows it to play a greater role within NATO: first, because the island makes Denmark the third country by size within the alliance (Ackren and Jakobsen, 2015); and second, because of the presence of the American base of Thule in northern Greenland (Rahbek-Clemmensen, 2016). But most importantly, if Greenland became independent, Denmark’s role within the Arctic Council would be greatly reduced, as Copenhagen would lose its only territory which is geographically located north of the Arctic Circle.[1]Thus, the object of Danish Arctic Security is sovereignty over Greenland, which is enforced by the Danish Armed Forces (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, p13).

As a result, Denmark sees China’s interests in Greenland’s resources as a challenge to its sovereignty and to its political security. In its security trend analysis of 2016, the Danish Defence Intelligence Service wrote that “[towards 2030] China will still be interested in extraction of raw materials in the Arctic, including Greenland” (DDIS, 2016, p.10; Rasmusen, 2017, p.97). What worries Copenhagen is firstly that China could help Greenland reach independence, but also the interlinkage between “Chinese raw materials companies and the Chinese political system”. According to the DDIS (2017): “there are certain risks related to large-scale Chinese investments in Greenland due to the effect that these investments would have on an economy of Greenland’s size. In addition, the risk of potential political interference and pressure increases when investments in strategic resources[2] are involved.” Finally, Copenhagen is also worried about China’s interest for minerals that could have dual use, such as uranium (Rasmusen, 2017), as this may also hamper its relations with Washington, which considers Beijing as its main strategic competitor.

This latter aspect is an important indicator of Copenhagen’s uneasy position. Greenland’s views on uranium extraction has moved from a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ to allowing its exploitation and even viewing it as a harmless resource whose exploitation could help it reach independence. Denmark keeps considering it as an issue of foreign and security policy, but it did not forbid Greenland to exploit it as long as it is done in concertation. This compromise reveals that Copenhagen does not want to be seen as an antiquated colonial power and that it wishes to appear as a responsible power on the international scene by not allowing everyone to exploit dual-use resources, but it also shows its willingness to preserve its sovereignty over Greenland in order to remain a “Great Arctic Power” (Rasmusen and Merkelsen, 2018). This is an important element. While the menace posed by China to Greenland’s identity is yet to manifest itself, the threat it creates to Denmark’s sovereignty is already evident: Beijing’s presence in the island is considered a menace, which explains Copenhagen’s concerns and its efforts to portray Chinese activities in Greenland as a potential threat, in accordance with the logic of the securitisation speech act.

In this regard, an event that epitomises Denmark’s view on the PRC’s presence in Greenland was its reaction when the Chinese company General Nice expressed its interest in buying the former Danish military base at Grønnedal in southern Greenland. In 2014, Copenhagen had stated that it would sell the base since it had lost its strategical importance; but after receiving the offer by General Nice, it changed its stance and decided to reopen the base in 2016 (Lulu, 2018).


Even though China may not be seeking to challenge the current security architecture of the Arctic, regional actors can still feel threatened by its presence, since they have different referent objects on which they built their sense of security. In our case study, Greenland’s referent object is identity. Due to its vulnerabilities to the side-effects of mineral exploitation (like environmental degradation and the inflow of Chinese workers, that could threaten the traditional Greenlandic lifestyle), actions undertaken by China that are neither openly nor willingly challenging Arctic Exceptionalism could still be interpreted by Greenland as a menace to its referent object.

The presence of foreign firms in Greenland is a result of the island´s economic potential but also of its willingness to achieve greater autonomy through economic means; a greater Chinese presence in Greenland, however, could have impact on the people’s lifestyles, and, therefore, Greenlanders could perceive their identity as being threatened.

Considering China’s interest in Greenland and the result of the elections held on the island on 24 April 2018, which have seen the victory of pro-independence parties that favour foreign investments to develop and diversify the country’s economy as the prelude to achieving independence, it is likely that Beijing will increase its economic presence in the coming years. But even though it may not want to destabilise the Arctic and the existing security architecture, the risk is that regional actors will still interpret its initiatives as a threat due to the specificity of their referent object. Chinese investment in Greenland can be seen as a menace to its societal security, due to their potentially disruptive impact on the island’s ecosystem, autochthone populations and traditional lifestyle.

But the Chinese presence on the island also impacts Denmark’s political security; and in this case, the effect is already manifesting itself in a securitisation logic. As a matter of fact, Denmark may consider it as a driver towards Greenland’s independence. This would pose a clear threat to its remaining sovereign rights over Greenland and considerably reduce Copenhagen’s role in NATO and most importantly in the Arctic Council, which in turn would undermine its influence in Arctic affairs. This explains why Danish authorities are concerned about a greater Chinese presence in Greenland, a concern they have openly expressed and that can be regarded as a securitising speech act.

As of now, only time will tell how these trends will unfold, and further research will be needed to assess the future impact of China’s presence in the Arctic and on the region’s security dynamic.

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[1]Denmark would remain sovereign over the Faroese Islands (which fall under the jurisdiction of the Arctic Council) but they are much smaller and are also considering independence.
[2]For example : rare earths elements and uranium.

Kenty Dubois is a Fellow at DynaMundo where he works on a set of policy-oriented research dealing with the Arctic Region. He recently got his Master’s degree in International Relations, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution from Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), analysing in his thesis Arctic security and the possible impact that Asian Observer States could have on Arctic regional stability through securitisation theory. He did an internship at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, where he was involved in a consultancy project for the European Commission and the European External Action Service, and has recently obtained a position as Intern/Political Analyst at the Embassy of Belgium in Helsinki.
Alessandro Gagaridis holds a Master’s degree in “International Relations, Professional Focus Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution” from Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium). He is a member of Wikistrat’s analytic community, and he also examined issues related with international affairs on his personal website ( 
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