Among the lofty dramatics of geopolitics, international observers now find themselves paying attention to the operation of a tiny democracy of 56,000 people, most of it conducted in Greenlandic, and the rest in Danish. The same analysts who emphasize Greenland’s importance to securing supply chains also underline the need to develop healthy interfaces with Greenlanders and their democratic institutions.
Greenland’s status can be hard to pin down. It is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, free to and keen to develop further its independence from the Danes, yet constrained by its reliance on them for roughly half of its annual budget. Greenland’s citizens, mostly Inuit, are entitled to take over any of the many responsibilities currently fulfilled by Copenhagen—which include immigration, shipping, and some aspects of foreign policy—on the condition that they pick up the cost as well. Full independence is a constitutionally enshrined option, so long as it receives popular backing in a referendum.
The island’s geographical contours are also confusing. Although the Mercator projection vastly exaggerates its size, Greenland is still huge, three times the size of Texas. Its geography is mind-melting: To get to Japan from Greenland, the proverbial crow would fly north, touching down before a southward-flying competitor reaches Brazil. It’s hard to say where land ends and ice begins. Every year researchers scan the coastline for new islands revealed by the retreating glaciers, heaped upon Greenland’s vast interior, a significant part of which is below sea level. And they are melting at an astonishing rate, opening the land, which is rich in rare-earth minerals and other resources, just as the melting ice opens the surrounding sea.
A new report, produced by the U.K.-based Polar Research and Policy Initiative, describes how then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to buy Greenland in 2019—which many islanders received as an insult—has impacted official thinking in the United States. Many there are increasingly aware, the report notes, that China is “simultaneously the world’s biggest reserve, producer, consumer, processor, importer and exporter of rare earths.” The United States has also taken notice of China’s recent survey of companies intended to determine how it can use its dominance in rare earths, as well as of suggestions in Chinese state media that rare earths could be a way of responding to new U.S. trade and tech barriers.
In February, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order underlining America’s need for “resilient, diverse, and secure supply chains.” The order specified that the secretary of defense “shall submit a report identifying risks in the supply chain for critical minerals and other identified strategic materials, including rare earth elements” and produce “policy recommendations to address these risks.” The same week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen argued that China’s dominance of rare earths is “not sustainable.”
As a result, Greenland is edging up the priority list in Washington, aided by a new U.S. Consulate in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk that opened last June.
It is in this context that the Polar Research and Policy Initiative report calls for “a Five Eyes Critical Minerals Alliance that can contribute to building greater resource security for the UK and its allies through enhanced cooperation in, and with, Greenland.” It notes that of the 41 companies that hold licenses to exploit, explore, and prospect for resources in Greenland, 27 are “headquartered in, listed in or substantially connected to the UK, Canada and Australia.”
The report thus argues that “given the UK’s vast footprint in Greenland, it is as much in the interest of its Five Eyes and European partners, as it is in its own interest, to encourage a pivoting of UK foreign, defence, security and trade policy towards Greenland and the cultivation of a new UK-Greenland Special Relationship.”
These proposals are being taken seriously in the U.K. The Polar Research and Policy Initiative serves as secretariat for a new British parliamentary grouping, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Greenland, formed in November 2020. According to the group’s vice chairman, Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Rosindell, who sits on the U.K.’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the West “cannot afford to ignore” Greenland. “The region possesses an abundance of several critical minerals which provide the Five Eyes Alliance, upon which British security ultimately rests, a unique opportunity to reduce our dependence on China in resources essential to defence and security,” Rosindell told me by email. Alluding also to “China’s growing assertiveness in the region,” he said, “I urge the UK Government to engage with the very highest levels of the Biden administration to coordinate a response.”