leading Chinese scholar discusses Greenland’s independence

My latest on China and Greenland, written for China Brief, discusses the two major mining projects with (or awaiting) Chinese investment and the rather peculiarly “launched” plans to set up a satellite ground station near Nuuk, revealed last year on this blog. The Brief piece also mentions, I believe as the first English-language source to do so, a mid-2017 paper with Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a well-known scholar of polar politics at the Ocean University of China (中国海洋大学), as lead author, on the geopolitics of Greenland’s independence. Guo’s paper openly talks about the “inevitability” (必然性) of Greenland’s independence as seen by Denmark, analyses its significance for the interests of Denmark, the EU, South Korea and the US (stressing the latter’s military presence), describes various economical and social challenges faced by Greenland, and concludes with the necessity of help from the “international community”. The article carefully avoids discussing China’s own interests. As I mention in the piece, Guo’s past statements, and Greenland’s importance within China’s Arctic strategy, warrant a reading of the piece as advocating China’s involvement in such international cooperation with a nascent Greenlandic state.

This would be entirely unremarkable, were it not for the extreme caution Chinese officials and academics exert, at least in public, on the delicate issue of Greenland’s independence. Although an independent Greenland with China as a major economic partner would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC, any sign of support would generate unwelcome debate in Greenland, potentially hurt relations with Denmark, and trigger the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论, a propaganda term used to refer to discussion of negative aspects of PRC influence abroad). In fact, Greenland’s authorities appear interested in ‘talking up’ the relationship with China, which doesn’t quite reciprocate. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs once publicly reminded Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”, after a minister had been forced to cancel a planned visit to Taiwan on a trade mission. When a high-level delegation led by Greenland’s premier Kim Kielsen visited China right after the 19th Party Congress, it was not invited by a state organ, but by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (中国人民外交学会), a state-affiliated think tank; Kielsen was received by a foreign-affairs vice-minister, Wang Chao 王超, the same protocol accorded to a Danish parliamentary delegation a few days later. The Greenlandic government, however, called the visit “official“. Greenland’s main interlocutors are, in fact, the Ministry of Land and Resources and its subordinate the State Oceanic Administration (responsible for Arctic affairs).

Protocol aside, Greenland’s apparent interest in ‘upgrading’ its relationship with China stems from its need for foreign investment, specifically in mining projects. Although (largely state-driven) Chinese interest in Greenland’s minerals is real, as documented on this blog, and is often related to national resource-acquisition strategies, a Chinese mining boom capable of powering Greenland’s economic independence has failed to materialise. As I say in the Brief piece, talks with Chinese SOEs on infrastructure development, including controversial airport projects, have so far not resulted in any announcements of Chinese interest, something probably related to the financial uncertainty that surrounds these plans. China is still of minor importance for a crucial industry, tourism, although there is clear growth potential. China is, on the other hand, a major destination for Greenland’s only major export, seafood (most of it reexported through Denmark; based on a recent estimate of yearly seafood exports to China and official export statistics for 2016, China’s share of seafood exports could be around 40%).

Besides the actual level of trade and investment, the perception of increasing Chinese interest can help Greenland’s position in negotiations with Denmark, in such aspects as having a greater say in, e.g., defining the Kingdom’s Arctic policies. The obvious answer to any Danish concerns about ‘sensitive’ Chinese investments and other activities in Greenland is that China is simply filling a vacuum left by other actors. Chinese activities in Greenland are mostly state-driven; it’s hard to imagine how other actors could compete for economic or other influence without clear state policies. The Brief piece mentions, in particular, the extent of MLR-led efforts to identify and study mining projects of interest and promote them to Chinese companies.

The modest scale of the economic relationship and the potential pitfalls of any overt support for independence will likely continue to define China’s cautious approach, but the publication of Guo’s paper could be a sign of more open discussion of the issue in academic and policy circles.

The paper is also a window into how knowledge is made: just like much ‘Arctic studies’ literature continues to rely on second and third-hand sources and blissfully ignore Chinese-language materials, Guo’s article contains a telling mistake. The paper gives “April 2017” as the date for the Danish rejection of General Nice’s plans to buy the abandoned Grønnedal base. In fact, the events took place before the summer of 2016, and were widely reported in Danish and English in December that year (I discussed them in January 2017). Guo’s source is a Chinese-language reporting based on a Reuters story that arrived much later.

I will discuss these and other aspects of the China-Greenland relationship in a forthcoming report.

2 thoughts on “leading Chinese scholar discusses Greenland’s independence

  1. Do you think that China’s reluctance to take a side on the independence issue has anything to do with the double standard that doing so would create back home with regards to Tibet/Xinjiang?

  2. It’s the PRC’s general attitude towards independence movements. Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan are of course reasons to be wary of self-determination, but keeping double standards isn’t a problem for the propaganda system (which would argue Tibet etc. are totally different and can’t be compared to anywhere else). In this case, the simplest explanation is that it’s not in China’s interest to show any support. It wouldn’t help, and could backfire. There is a perfectly legal procedure for Greenland to become fully independent, and China (just like other foreign countries) can simply sit and wait for that to happen (or not).

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