China wants to establish a permanent ground research station in Greenland ‘as soon as possible’, Yu Yong 俞勇, a researcher at the beautifully named PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China, 中国极地研究中心), said at the yearly Reykjavik ‘assembly’ of the Arctic Circle, an organisation chaired by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. This was first reported by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Sermitsiaq and on his Twitter account. Breum has long been covering Greenland, where he lived as a teenager, and has written a must-read book whose English version is free to download.
Breum tweeted a picture showing two candidate locations for the base:
The map shows two possible locations. One is in the southwest, near Kangaamiut or Maniitsoq. (Readers with better visual acuity and knowledge of Greenlandic geography may come to a more precise conclusion.) The northern one is of particular interest, and will be discussed below. The third red mark in the northeast, labelled 丹麦站 Dānmài zhàn ‘Danish station’ is indeed a Danish station, the military and scientific outpost Station Nord.
The Chinese delegation at the Reykjavik event includes several officials: State Oceanic Administration deputy director Lin Shanqing 林山青, MFA special Arctic representative Gao Feng 高风, and of course PRIC head Yang Huigen 杨惠根 (who sits at the board of the entity behind the event). Skimming through the programme, I see three sessions organised by Chinese entities (the PRIC (whose session is plenary), Beijing Normal University (北师大) and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC, 中国—北欧北极研究中心)). In terms of quantity, that makes the Chinese presence comparatively strong among non-Arctic states, larger than e.g. South Korea’s. However, the Chinese delegation is unremarkable in terms of seniority next to, e.g., the UAE and, of course, some of the Arctic states.
It is remarkable that the event was chosen for the first official discussion of the Greenland station plans. On the other hand, it was left to a relatively junior figure, Yu Yong, a marine microbiologist with an ‘associate research fellow’ (副研究员) position. (Breum’s article misidentifies him as ‘vicedirector of PRIC’; the confusion might have been due to Yu’s status as ‘deputy head’ of a division within the PRIC.) Chinese plans for a base in Greenland had been under discussion for some time, in particular during a SOA visit to Greenland last year. What the announcement shows, besides the public disclosure of the potential locations, is that China can already count on the agreement of the Greenland government. As Breum notes, scientific research falls under the devolved purview of the Greenland government, and Copenhagen’s approval isn’t necessary in principle.
As quoted by Breum, Yu said China wants to build the station “as soon as possible”, while adding there’s no clear schedule yet.
The more impressive of the two proposed locations would of course be the northernmost one. The area will be familiar to regular readers: it’s near the Citronen Fjord zinc project, where minor miner Ironbark from Australia holds a mining permit. An arm of state-owned China Nonferrous (中色) has long had a series of non-binding agreements with Ironbark, showing an interest in financing and building the project. Zinc prices have been rising, which is good news for Ironbark, but the site’s remote location and lack of infrastructure make costs unusually high (indeed prohibitive, according to some). Ironbark shares don’t show signs of generalised enthusiasm for the mine.
There is, however, one entity that remains interested in the project: China Nonferrous, specifically its listed arm NFC (中色股份). One of its deputy general managers (副总经理), Qin Junman 秦军满, visited the Citronen site last August, accompanied by the crème of Greenland’s resources ministry: the minister (naalakkersuisoq) Múte Bourup Egede and the top career official, deputy minister (departmentschef) Jørgen Hammeken-Holm. The display of support is understandable: Citronen Fjord is one of two important, viable projects for Greenland’s economic development; the other one, the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) uranium and rare-earth project, also with Chinese involvement, is controversial, and indeed less to the minister’s liking. Ironbark is now working with NFC towards obtaining financing from Chinese banks.
If the project goes ahead, the Citronen mine would be, by a long stretch, the world’s northernmost (at 83°N), and indeed the northernmost settlement of any kind on dry land. During the initial phases of the project, most workers will be foreign, indeed most likely Chinese, so that nationality, and the state behind the entity doing the building, would hold the record. A competitor for that record could be the planned Chinese research station, assuming the northern site is finally chosen. It’s hard not to see the connection between these two planned locations; as is well known, neither Chinese scientific projects of this kind nor those of state-owned companies are disjoint from broader state policies. An obvious example is the Kvanefjeld uranium+REE project, where the Chinese investor is under the PRC Ministry of Land and Resources, and “implements a vision” reached at a meeting between the minister and Greenlandic officials.
(For those wondering: Citronen (‘the lemon’) Fjord isn’t so named because any citrics grow there. It honours Jørgen Haagen Schmith, who used the pseudonym as a resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Walter Turnowsky has written about this for Sermitsiaq. I try to provide Greenlandic names for any Greenland locations I mention on this blog, but I’ve looked and asked around and apparently Citronen Fjord doesn’t have another name, possibly due to its remote location even by Greenlandic standards.)
As Yu’s map helpfully shows, the northern candidate site is located northwest of Station Nord, a rather strategic point. It’s only to be expected that the Danes are paying close attention at Chinese plans for the area. Indeed, some minor friction already occurred late last year, when Ironbark was applying for the exploitation licence; the Danish foreign ministry wrote to Greenland enquiring about the project, something the local authorities didn’t appreciate. The fact that no such enquiries had been sent concerning other mining projects without Chinese involvement makes the People’s Republic the elephant in the room.
Even though it hasn’t generated the mining boom that, as some might have imagined at some point, would suddenly make Greenland economically independent of Denmark, Chinese interests in the island are slowly increasing. Besides the mines and research stations, another interesting development is the last few month has been the start of the construction of a satellite ground station in cooperation between Beijing Normal University (北师大), Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), announced last May.