On China's New Silk Road

ep06China’s Arctic Ambition

China’s Arctic Ambition

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China’s leaders see climate change as an opportunity in the Arctic, where a new shorter trade route is emerging as ice melts. With its Polar Silk Road, China is targeting access to rare earths, uranium, fish stocks, oil, gas—and the strategic benefits of having a presence in the Arctic. China’s initiative has revived U.S. interest in the region and stoked concerns over an ambitious rising power.

Episode Transcript

(Sound of ice crunching under feet.) 

Walking on the Arctic ice sheet is trippy. 

(Sound of walking on ice sheet) 

You look out on frozen ocean, a mile deep in places, that stretches endlessly with ripples of ice and hills, instead of waves. The ice looks dingy on the ice sheet’s edge, the way snow does on the road, late in the season. But here, the dinge comes from the silt the ice sheet is pushing to its edges.

And at its edges, as well as overall, the ice sheet in Greenland, is melting at an epically alarming rate. 

(Sound of waterfall)

Water from melting ice is gushing down this waterfall, near the edge of the ice sheet. It pours off a glacial wall with a jagged crack that will eventually give way. On Greenland’s northeastern ice shelf, a chunk of ice twice the size of Manhattan has broken off over the past two years. 

Greenland’s ice sheet is the second biggest in the world, after Antarctica’s. These ice sheets have long helped reflect sunlight, and stabilize global temperatures. But with climate change, temperatures are rising, ice is melting – on Greenland’s ice sheet, and on the Arctic Ocean. And a dark ocean without ice, absorbs sunlight, warming the water, and accelerating a climate change feedback loop.

Still, a planet’s peril can be a superpower’s opportunity:

Gao Feng: The melting ice also provides economic opportunities for the development of the Arctic, including for the Asian countries. 

This is China’s special representative for Arctic Affairs, Gao Feng, speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, in October 2019. Over the past decade, in many ways, China has made its Arctic ambitions known, and its presence felt, throughout the region.

The Harpa Conference Center and Concert Hall in Reykjavik, where the annual Arctic Circle Assembly is held. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Music)

You’re on China’s New Silk Road. I’m Mary Kay Magistad, a former China correspondent for NPR and PRX’s The World, looking here, with the Global Reporting Centre, at how China’s global ambitions are seen around the world, and at the impact China’s New Silk Road actions and investments are having on the ground. 

(Music)

China’s New Silk Road is also called the Belt and Road Initiative – as in, building a belt of land routes, and a Maritime Silk Road of sea routes around the world. It may be the most ambitious global infrastructure initiative ever. And it became more ambitious in 2018, when China added to it a Polar Silk Road – with China looking to invest in Arctic countries, expand its usage of the Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters – and give China more of a strategic presence in the Arctic. So far, that’s gotten a mixed response. 

 (Sound of people chatting at Arctic Circle conference) 

The annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik brings together government leaders, researchers, activists, journalists – many hundreds of people who care about the future of the Arctic, and the future of the planet.

Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, during the summer. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Katrin Jakobsdottir: The fact that the Arctic is warming at a rate of almost twice the global average should be alarming to all of us. Many of us here will live to see ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean. Nature, ecosystems and communities will be transformed. 

This is Iceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir. She spoke inside a packed auditorium. Just outside the conference hall, within view of Reykjavik’s harbor, a block of melting ice from Greenland’s ice sheet – brought here for this conference – drives home the point. But Iceland’s prime minister isn’t only concerned about the Arctic’s melting ice.

Katrin Jakobsdottir: Iceland has consistently called for a peaceful and cooperative regime in the Arctic. Increased geopolitical tensions in the region is a deplorable development. 

And some of them have to do both with China, and with one of its partners on the Polar Silk Road – Russia. 

(Sound of Russian military exercises) 

Russia has been putting its troops through the paces of protecting Russia’s Arctic – and the Northern Sea Route, a sea lane that’s opening in the Arctic Ocean as ice melts. Russia’s Tsentr 2019 military exercises, which included almost 130,000 troops, including 1,600 from China, and some from India, Pakistan and Central Asia, also included exercises protecting Russia’s access to the Northern Sea Route – a route that even now, is mostly covered with ice, and only passable from July until the water starts to freeze again. China’s quite interested in the Northern Sea Route too. 

Marc Lanteigne: Now the two countries are starting to align their Arctic interests. Absolutely. But Russia is still very concerned about the sovereignty of its Arctic territories. 

This is Marc Lanteigne. He’s chief editor of a website on Arctic security called Over the Circle, and he’s also an associate professor of politics, security and international relations at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. He spoke at the Arctic Circle conference, and I caught up with him in the hallway afterward. 

Marc Lanteigne: Certainly, the Chinese military has been more involved in the Arctic, especially cooperation with Russia. But you have to draw a distinction between that kind of cooperation which, in some cases they’re kind of goodwill missions, and forms of security cooperation, and the question of, what will China get, if it begins to send more and more military personnel and material into the region? Who benefits? What are the costs versus the benefits? And what will be the reaction of the Arctic 8? Because again, China has no Arctic territory. And much of China’s Arctic policy is very much dependent on Russia, and Russia’s certainly not a pushover when it comes to its Arctic sovereignty. So all of that has to be kept in mind. It is very likely that we will see greater instances of PLA Navy vessels appearing. And it’s very possible that we might see greater submarine activity. But that has to be balanced by the fact that China has a very specific set of policy interests in the region, very few of which will be improved if they start to really start showing their military in that part of the world. 

Mary Kay Magistad: And you were saying they might be getting pushback then, not just from the US and the EU, but also from Russia. 

ML: It is a strong possibility. Like right now, Russia is in a very precarious situation. If you were to speak to a Russian official about, okay, how would you like Arctic investment to go? The ideal scenario would be Chinese investment, absolutely. European investment. Investment from various other countries. That option is not present right now as a result of post-2014 Ukraine. So now we have a very interesting marriage of convenience situation between Russia and China. 

When he says 2014 Ukraine, he’s talking about sanctions imposed on Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese state-owned companies from investing billions of dollars for a 30 percent stake in a liquified natural gas project in northern Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. 

 (Sound of Russian television news report on Yamal LNG project)

This Russian news report, on Russia’s state-owned VGTRK television, shows a sprawling plant with a big new port, and the flame from gas flares lighting up the night sky. 

Alexander Novak: (Speaks in Russian)   

Russia’s Energy Minister Alexander Novak told the reporter this new project is helping Russia diversify its energy routes and energy policy. And it’s creating jobs. The project is with France’s Total and China’s state-owned company CNPC. And this project matters to China. About half of China’s liquified natural gas now comes from Russia. CNPC’s vice-president Qin Weizhong told the Russian state VGTRK reporter:

Qin Weizhong: (Speaks in Chinese) 

His company will actively participate in this and other investment projects in Russia. 

Marc Lanteigne: And President Putin has said on more than one occasion that we see the Russian Arctic as a major contributor to our future economic plans. So how to keep this kind of relationship between Russia and China and the Arctic, stable, while knowing that obviously there’s still a degree of trust building between the two sides that still hasn’t been created yet. 

For instance, Russia would like everyone to use Russian icebreaker ships to get them through the Northern Sea Route. But China’s now got two icebreakers of its own, and one of the world’s most productive shipbuilding industries. And China has its own aspirations in the Northern Sea Route. Using it can shave off 10 or more days for a cargo ship traveling between China and Europe, compared to using the Suez Canal. Having access to the Northern Sea Route could also be strategically useful, in case of a conflict with the United States. But to the Arctic Circle conference audience, China’s special representative on the Arctic, Gao Feng, focused only on the win-win: 

Gao Feng: Ladies and gentlemen, in the age of globalization, the future of the Arctic concerns the interests of Arctic states, and the well-being of all Asian countries. China is ready to cooperate with other Asian countries to jointly build a Polar Silk Road. Through conducting international cooperation to a large extent, we could jointly contribute to a brilliant future of Asia and the Arctic. I thank you all. (Light applause)

The response in the room wasn’t wild enthusiasm. In fact, the auditorium had half-emptied out before Gao Feng spoke. Other talks had gone long. People wanted coffee. But also – China coming on strong in the Arctic, hasn’t been embraced by all Arctic countries all the time.

Thordur Snaer Juliusson: My feeling is when you speak about this with Icelandic politicians, even those that are in power, they’re skeptical about it when they’re off-record. 

This is Thordur Snaer Juliusson, editor-in-chief of Iceland’s Kjarninn media company. 

Thordur Snaer Juliusson: They say, well, we have to look at this from a number of perspectives. Is it good for us economically? Is it good for us socially to do this? And is it good for us, if you look at it as just realpolitik. Is this a strategic move, to add to the influence of China in this part of the world? And how will our strategic partners through NATO and especially with the US, being a huge trading partner for Iceland, and our guardian of sorts, through NATO, and obviously had a base here until 2006 since the end of the last World War. How will they look upon us dealing more with China in that way?

Over the past decade, China has built an imposing new embassy in Reykjavik – the largest embassy in Iceland. Iceland and China signed a free trade deal – though, Thordor tells me, it’s led far more to Chinese goods coming into Iceland than Iceland exports going to China. There’s a Chinese-Icelandic joint research base, in northern Iceland. And then, Thordur says, there have also been a couple of odd proposed projects, that didn’t end up happening, but are worth remembering:

Thordur Snaer Juliusson: In 2012, we also had – a Chinese guy called Huang Nubo, who came here to Iceland and tried to buy a large chunk of land in the north part of Iceland. And this became a huge deal here, and a huge news story for months. 

Mary Kay Magistad: To build a golf course, he said. 

TSJ: To build a golf course, he said, a golf course and sort of a high-class tourist resort. 

MKM: In a very cold and windy part of northern Iceland. 

TSJ: Very cold. And very windy. And it will be very interesting golf that will be played on that golf course, for people that have been to that part of the country. So a lot of people, and a lot of politicians were really skeptical about his intentions. There was a lot of skepticism towards him being a private investor, or if he was just a front for the Chinese government. And at the end of the day, nothing came of the deal.

Same thing with a Chinese proposal in 2015 to build a small aluminum smelter in northern Iceland.

Thordur Snaer Juliusson: There were no deals to purchase energy for that smelter. It was a very small smelter, which is strange when you’re building it in such an expensive country as Iceland is, where salaries are quite high, and you have to meet a very high criteria for that sort of operations. 

But a memorandum of understanding was signed, photos with handshakes taken – including with Iceland’s then-prime minister, the one who resigned after the Panama Papers revealed his family had sheltered money offshore: 

Thordur Snaer Juliusson: And he’s never really revealed a lot about what was going on there. It was a very strange thing, and nothing has come of it. 

For more than a decade, China has been looking for openings into the Arctic. It increased exploration and research, and declared itself a ‘near-Arctic power’ – a claim US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo derided at the 2019 Arctic Council meeting in Finland:

Mike Pompeo: Beijing claims to be a near-Arctic State. Yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing. 

Or maybe it does, because China’s now a permanent observer on The Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum of Arctic governments – the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, plus Arctic indigenous communities. And China’s made clear its interests in having access to the Northern Sea Route, to the fish and perhaps oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean’s high seas, to minerals and rare earths that climate change is making increasingly accessible in Greenland. And– in case of conflict – it’s always useful to already have a presence in the Arctic. Or as Thordor, the Icelandic editor, put it: 

Thordur Snaer Juliusson: The world is seeing China trying to gain more influence all over the world, Russia behaving in another manner than they did 10 -15 years ago. Then suddenly a small country like Iceland in the middle of Atlantic becomes strategically important again.

What’s true for Iceland, is even more true for its much bigger neighbor to the west – Greenland. 

Mary Kay Magistad: So we’re approaching Kangerlussuaq now, going over a turquoise-colored lagoon. In the distance, you can see the beginning of the ice sheet. And before that, there are rolling rocky hills and little lakes.

Cracks in a glacier near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, a small settlement of about 500 people. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Sound of plane landing)

Flight Attendant: Welcome to Kangerlussuaq. Please keep your seatbelt fastened until the fasten seatbelt light has been turned off. We hope you had a pleasant flight. Thank you, and see you soon again. 

Greenland’s airport of Kangerlussuaq is about the same distance from New York, as Seattle is from Chicago. It’s close. That’s a big reason why, during World War II, when Nazi Germany took over Denmark, and Greenland was still a Danish colony – the United States set up airbases in Greenland, to preempt the possibility of Nazi planes being within easy reach of America’s east coast. Now there’s just one US air base on Greenland – Thule. 

But at Kangerlussuaq, a little settlement of about 500 people inside the Arctic Circle and near the edge of the ice sheet, there’s a museum in what, in the early 1960s, was the US Base Commander’s headquarters: 

Mary Kay Magistad: And you walk into the Base Commander’s office, and you’re greeted by a musk ox’s head, mounted on the wall, a brown leather chair with a sign that says “please do not sit” – the kind with brass tacks holding the leather on. Very mid-century modern in here.

There’s a typewriter, a landline phone. In the bookcase are books about the US Air Force in Southeast Asia, early in the Vietnam War. There’s a Bible, a book called “Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic.” And there’s a copy of US News & World Report from January 1990, with a photo on the cover of a hammer hitting a sickle, with the headline: “The Collapse of Communism: Is the Soviet Union Next?”

(Sound of turning pages) 

Well. We all know what happened there. But now, with growing Russian military activity again in the Arctic, and with growing Chinese interest there, President Trump tried to make up for lost time in August 2019, by offering to buy Greenland – which now has home rule but not full independence – from Denmark. 

Donald Trump: Essentially, it’s a large real estate deal. A lot of things could be done. It’s hurting Denmark very badly, because they’re losing almost $700 million a year carrying it. So they carry it at a great loss. And strategically, for the United States, it would be nice. 

The $700 million is actually the annual subsidy Denmark gives Greenland. Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, called Trump’s offer to buy Greenland absurd. Trump called her nasty. At the Arctic Circle conference, Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kim Kielsen said in Greenlandic:

Kim Kielsen: (Speaks in Greenlandic) 

“This idea of being bought is alien to our culture, where people can roam and hunt freely, and lease land for their homes. So we responded to the offer to buy us, by saying, “We are not for sale, but we are open for business.”

Greenland is roughly three times the size of Texas, but it has just 57,000 people, most of them Inuit – who are close cousins of Inuit in Alaska and Canada.

(Sound of kids playing in Nuuk)

Kids playing in Nuuk, Greenland. (Mary Kay Magistad)

A growing number of Greenlanders are moving to the capital city, Nuuk – population 18,000, for better jobs and better educations.

Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, has a population of around 18,000. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: The smaller communities have difficulty of maintaining people, because of the high living costs, and the more severe living conditions they have: the poor standards of housing, lack of job opportunities, lack of training and education, is something that forces people to move from small communities to larger communities.

Housing in Nuuk, Greenland. (Mary Kay Magistad)

This is Greenland’s Finance Minister, Vittus Qujaukitsoq. He’s Inuit himself, and, like most Greenlanders, he’s in favor of Greenland gaining independence from Denmark. But before that can happen, he says, Greenland needs to improve education so the next generation has the capacity to govern. He says his government needs to improve opportunities and quality of life so more Greenlanders stay in Greenland instead of moving abroad. And to make all that happen, he says, investment now, including investment from China, is needed to help the economy grow.

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: The Greenland government has conducted annual trips to China to promote investment opportunities in Greenland for the past nine years. And I’ve been to China in three occasions in various portfolios I’ve had, but most recently, to promote industrial investment opportunities in Greenland. 

China is especially interested in mining rare earths and uranium in Greenland, adding to its already near-global monopoly on the rare earths market. The approval process has taken years, says Johannes Kyed, a geologist, and corporate social responsibility manager with the company Greenland Minerals: 

Johannes Kyed: We’ve been active since 2007 doing exploration. And then we started looking into the feasibility of the mine, and also doing the assessments. And we put forward the first draft of these assessments back in 2015. 

This would be for rare earths mines in southern Greenland, the one area of Greenland where people can grow crops. Some locals are concerned about the possibility of rare earth tailings, especially from uranium, getting into the water, and then into the food supply. Part of Johannes’ job is to consult with the public: 

Johannes Kyed: So we inform people about uranium, not only us, but also the Department of Minerals. 

Mary Kay Magistad: I would imagine there’s a potential risk to the miners, radiation exposure. There’s a potential risk to people who live in the area. But then beyond that, there’s also strategically kind of a concern about, so then who gets the uranium and what do they do with it? 

JK: That’s right. And on that part, Denmark plays an important role. So Greenland really doesn’t have any foreign policy. It goes through Denmark, everything. And Denmark has helped to get through various regulations about radioactive materials such as ore, how to be handled. 

MKM: So if there’s a Chinese company involved, does that complicate things from the perspective of the Danish government, wanting to trace where the uranium is going?

JK: You would think so. I’m sure. (Laughs)

He says there’s actually a strict protocol for tracing uranium, from when it’s mined, to when and where it’s shipped. In this case, Johannes says, a Chinese rare earths company has a stake in an Australian company that will be doing the actual mining – if and when this project goes ahead. Johannes says personally, he welcomes Chinese investment to Greenland – with some reservations:

Johannes Kyed: Even though I welcome the Chinese, because any investment in Greenland, in my opinion, could be good for us. But then again, you’ve seen how they have affected communities in Africa, where they have financed, for instance, some infrastructure. And then they have a huge influence in those areas. Some people are not so happy with that. We definitely know the Chinese are aggressive in that perspective. But I’m confident that it will not happen in the same way as you see elsewhere in the world up here. 

Mary Kay Magistad: What gives you that confidence? 

JK: Because we have great relations with Europe and Denmark, who again, have a great relationship with the North Americans.

(Sound at Nuuk harbor) 

Down at Nuuk’s harbor, fishermen lay out their nets, with a view is white-capped peaks, a bright blue sky, the occasional whale, and both container ships and free-floating chunks of ice, broken off from glaciers, floating in the water. There, too, is the headquarters – in royal blue and white – of the Joint Arctic Command – Denmark’s military presence in Greenland. 

Martin Thorup: Yes, we have several units on the surface – ships. They do military operations. They defend the entire area.

This is Martin Thorup. He heads operations here. 

Martin Thorup: Surveillance is the biggest task, just figuring out what is going on in the entire area. It goes with the regular frigates, which is more of a new asset. It was decided in 2016 that it was going to be here. And one month ago, it came here for the first time.

Mary Kay Magistad: And we’re talking in July 2019, so this was the first time the frigate is patrolling.

MT: That was the maiden voyage of the frigate in our theater, and under our command.

MKM: And then you have dog sleds. 

MT: Yes. That is also part of our operation in the northeastern part of Greenland. We have a dog sled patrol who sort of ensures the sovereignty of Denmark in the national park of Northeastern Greenland. 

MKM: How do the dog sleds do that? 

MT: Well, they travel out from a base command, and then they travel out for periods of two or four months. Two guys, 13 dogs, and a dog sleigh. 

MKM: And a Danish flag. 

MT: And a Danish flag that is probably the most important bit.

On the wall of the room where we’re speaking is a photo of an Arctic Command officer, crouched in the snow, shirtless in bare feet, holding a rifle, two dogs behind him, and a polar bear advancing just feet away. Also on the wall is the polar bear’s skin. 

That’s one thing to stay vigilant about here in Greenland. Another is Chinese vessels, including research vessels which Martin Thorup says are becoming more present in and near Greenland’s territorial waters. He says that’s not illegal, if Chinese researchers have applied for a permit and received no objection. Still, the Arctic Command keeps an eye on who’s coming and going. 

(Transitional music)

At the University of Greenland, with the evening sky as bright as an afternoon’s, I catch up with the chair of Greenland’s Research Council, Josephine Nymand. She’s a biologist. And on this particular day, she’s just back from doing field research on climate change. She says more and more Chinese researchers are coming to Greenland. And there’s been Chinese interest in building a ground-based satellite data receiver station in Nuuk. 

Josephine Nymand: It was something that we could benefit from, because we would get access to higher resolution satellite images almost in real time, which otherwise is really expensive. 

She says that could help Greenland researchers like her do their research on climate change. 

Mary Kay Magistad: And the Chinese team that negotiated the project said yes, 

absolutely, we will be giving you access to this?

JN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was kind of the product of the cooperation – because they would take down those images anyway, and then they could process it and they would give it to our group here.

MKM: What did they say about why they want to do this?

JN: They have this array of these stations. They have one in Sweden, I know…. 

And one in Svalbard, in Norway, and one in northern Iceland. 

Josephine Nymand: It has to do with getting data, of course, from satellites. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to have this line of receivers. But I am not a technical person, so I cannot say what exactly they wanted to download. And also, of course, I don’t know if they are telling us the truth or not. 

In fact, she says, Danish police intelligence officers in Nuuk had questions along those lines. She says they came and did a presentation for researchers here: 

Josephine Nymand: You get a little paranoid after having a presentation like that, at least I do. Because then, we really cannot do any collaboration, because we would be used. Instead of doing a real cooperation, then us as well as maybe the Chinese researchers would be misused by the Chinese government. And that is really difficult to see through. 

As had been the case for China’s entire Arctic strategy, until it laid it out a little more clearly, in a policy document in 2018: 

Marc Lanteigne: Up until when China released its first Arctic white paper, the only information we had about China’s interests in the region was various bits and pieces. We had some policy statements. We had some activities by Chinese firms as you pointed out, but there really didn’t seem to be any kind of unified strategy. And the main reason for that was that China was still trying to build one. It was still trying to talk to various experts to uncover more information about the major stakeholders in the region before actually putting forward a policy. 

This is Marc Lanteigne again, from the Arctic University of Norway: 

Marc Lanteigne: So now, what we see is Beijing’s interest in incorporating the Arctic into the Belt and Road, which is this giant trade network, which gets bigger every year, but also to be seen as an Arctic stakeholder, to say, we have no interest in challenging sovereignty in the region. But economically, scientifically, there should be a role for non-Arctic states, of which China is obviously a part.

But what does that mean for ordinary people here? I check in with a local journalist. 

Inge Rasmussen: Hi, I’m Inge Rasmussen. I work as a journalist here at the newspaper. It’s called Atuagagdliutit/Grønlandsposten – in short, AG. 

Inge grew up in Denmark, and moved to Greenland 20 years ago. She’s been working as a journalist here ever since, and is married to a Greenlander. She says in recent years here in Greenland, there’s been a pretty wide and growing range of Chinese investments, and interest in investments here – in fish and seafood processing – where more than 100 Chinese migrant workers have been brought in to increase efficiency – in mining, and – in refurbishing airports – though, that last one didn’t go ahead – she explains, as we stroll past construction of a new hotel for tourists, near her newsroom.

Partner reporter Inge Rasmussen, a Danish journalist who moved to Greenland 20 years ago, with her husband Jorgen Chemnitz in Nuuk, Greenland. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Sound of construction)

Inge Rasmussen: Well, in the pre-bidding, a Chinese company was prequalified to make a bid on the construction of the airports. It turns out that the Chinese company wasn’t among the final bidders. And it’s been very difficult to really find the concrete reason, the actual reason for – it’s called CCCC, or four C – the company, why it wasn’t in the final bidding. Maybe they found out they weren’t really welcome. 

CCCC: that’s the China Communications Construction Company. It’s one of China’s top state-owned enterprises, and one of those most involved in building infrastructure on China’s New Silk Road. The CCCC also helped build islands in the South China Sea, where China has created military bases. And that’s led the Trump Administration to impose sanctions on the CCCC, and tell others to stay away from it. 

Here in Greenland, this Chinese state-owned company threw its hat in to be considered to refurbish and expand three of Greenland’s airports – in Nuuk, Ilulisat, and Qaqortoq. That was before then-US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly leaned on the government of Denmark to finance the airport construction itself. Inge and her husband Jorgen Chemnitz take me out to the construction already underway at Nuuk’s airport: 

(Sound of riding in car)

Jorgen Chemnitz: But it’s on the plans for the new airport is that a lot of this is also going to be blown away. And all of this is going to be moved back. Because apparently, with the airplanes that are going to land here, the safety areas around the airstrip is pretty big.

When he says “blown away” – he means, with dynamite. Jorgen has an eye for a story. He’s a documentary filmmaker – half Inuit, half Danish. 

Jorgen Chemnitz: But I have an American accent, I was told, because I was an exchange student in 1975 in Omaha, Nebraska. 

And when it comes to Chinese investment in Greenland:

Jorgen Chemnitz: I’m very skeptical, not so much about the Chinese, but about our politicians. I think they’re very naive. If you think US Monroe doctrine, in my mind, the US would never allow Chinese investments or any sort of involvement in Greenland.

Mary Kay Magistad: Do you feel that they shouldn’t be so restrictive in terms of what China does in Greenland? 

JC: I think we should be very, very afraid of the Chinese. That’s my opinion.

Inge says, as a journalist here, she hears a fair bit of ambivalence about prospects for Chinese investment. Inge says Greenlanders in general still don’t know a lot about what Chinese investors want, and how it might affect Greenland.

Inge Rasmussen: We can read about, ok, what have they done in Africa or other parts of the world? But maybe they won’t do it here. Or maybe they will. Should we be afraid? We don’t know. I mean, what this country needs are people willing to invest.

Mary Kay Magistad: People willing to invest in a way that’s in Greenland’s best interests. 

IR: Preferably. (Laughs). Of course. But still, we’re still dependent on Denmark, which is in turn dependent on the US. So we’re also very much dependent on the United States. And being situated where we are, I find it very hard to believe that whoever’s in charge in the US will allow for anything to be compromised in this chunk of ice that is Greenland. 

(Sound in airport) 

The biggest number of Chinese coming to Greenland these days are tourists, who hop over from Iceland. When I was flying from Reykjavik to Greenland, I met three Chinese couples from Anhui province – now in their 50s, all old school friends – traveling together. We bumped into each other again, flying out. So I asked how their trip was to Ilulisat – where you can take a boat out, go whale-watching, and see huge chunks of ice fall off of glaciers. 

Lin Wen Xiang: (Speaks in Chinese.)

This is Lin Wen Xiang. He’s a construction engineer. He says, “We could see that the ice in the Arctic is melting fast. We could feel that the guide here is also concerned. Another guide told us, ‘now you have to go home, and tell people the harm global warming brings us.’ Lin says he plans to do that. I ask what he thinks about the Chinese government’s interest in increasing its use of the Northern Sea Route.

Lin Wen Xiang: (Speaks in Chinese.)

He says, ‘I’m not sure. If this is bad for the earth, what’s the point of going through that route? I never thought about serious problems like this before.” 

Travel can be enlightening. It can also be good for Greenland’s economy. And a construction boom in Nuuk… 

(Sound of construction) 

…includes building hotels, in the hope that the new expanded airport will bring in more tourists – after COVID-19 ends. But not too many more tourists. Iceland has been getting five times more visitors per year than there are people in Iceland.

Chinese tourists in Reykjavik, Iceland, taking in a whalespotting tour. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Greenland, with its 57,000 people, gets roughly that same number of tourists per year. Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s Finance Minister, says Greenland needs to go at a slower pace:

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: Our capacity is too small, looking at the hotels and the service functions we have, restaurants, et cetera. They need to be built up before we can obtain more tourists. So it requires a considerable effort, not only money, investments, but we would need labor from abroad to cover the needs that the tourists might have. 

Greenland is looking outside its borders, for money and help to improve education and increase capacity, to prepare for a day when Greenland is independent. And a Chinese Arctic thinktank in Beijing has taken note that Greenland’s independence could be an opportunity for China – a huge territory with a tiny population, strategically located, and rich in minerals, fish stocks and, potentially, oil and gas. Jorgen, the filmmaker, doesn’t like the sound of that: 

Jorgen Chemnitz: If we become independent, we would be a very weak state, a very weak nation. And if it came to that, I think, the level of conflict between the US and China would escalate radically. I mean, nobody wants a weak state here. 

Vittus says Greenland would in any case still be part of NATO – so it wouldn’t be that weak. 

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: I don’t think It matters, whether if it’s NATO or United States, at the end it’s the same for us.

But while we’re on the subject, he says, Greenland should be getting rent from any military base on its territory. And at the moment, the deal is between Denmark and the United States.

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: We don’t know the hidden figures or arrangements there have been between Denmark and United States, for almost eight decades. All we know is that United States was admitted rights to use Greenland, in scientific, industrial, military sense, without asking. 

Right now, Greenland’s government gets about half its public budget in a grant from Denmark. And Greenland’s economy relies on fisheries for almost half of its locally-generated GDP. Vittus says Greenland needs to diversify. 

(Sound of Greenlanders chatting in a Nuuk restaurant)

Nuuk is growing and will continue to grow. Some estimates are that its population will grow 50 percent in the next decade. That would mean that Greenlanders, who’d long roamed and hunted and fished in remote areas, would need good jobs, and education for their kids, and help with adjusting to a new way of life, since climate change is cutting into the old one. And if Chinese companies come along, offering investments that will help Greenland’s government provide a better life for all those people? 

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: Well, I’m just saying that, at the end of the day, it’s not interesting for me whether the money comes from China or from US, or from Canada, or from any other country. For me, the most interesting part is making progress and growth in Greenland. But on the other hand, we have other considerations in terms of security matters, which foreign bodies that we attract to Greenland, not only short term, but in the long term – what good it does for our position. 

He says he’s aware of this, when considering Chinese investments. 

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: The important thing is what is written with the small text, what measures China is using for its own purpose. I’m very skeptical about how cheap we can obtain a loan. But one thing is sure, that we should be very attentive on what is signed, or before we sign anything. 

Mary Kay Magistad: Things have been signed at this point? 

VQ: No, no. 

MKM: Nothing signed yet. You’re smiling as you’re shaking your head. 

VQ: It’s just what we see elsewhere that frightens, dealing with nations like China. 

Vittus sees no way an independent Greenland would, like Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, host both a US military base, and a Chinese one: 

Vittus Qujaukitsoq: I don’t think it’s desirable for us to have Chinese military in Greenland. We don’t even contemplate this opportunity. And I think it would be very wrong of me to address anything in that regard. It’s out of question as I see it. 

Better, he says, would be a closer relationship with Greenland’s closest neighbors – the United States and Canada. A new US consulate has just opened in Nuuk – for the first time since 1953. 

The wakeup call has been received. Climate change is opening the Arctic to new players, and new challenges to US interests. And without more active US engagement here, melting ice may not be the only change that comes to the Arctic.

(Music)

Thanks to partner reporter Inge Rasmussen in Greenland, and to Shuang Li, who you heard in Episode One, and who helped with Chinese-language research on China’s activities and ambitions in the Arctic. Our editor is Dave Rummel. Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Our executive producer is Christine Brandt.

The reporting and production of this episode, China’s Arctic Ambition, was funded by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

On China’s New Silk Road is a production of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit group that teaches, practices and promotes innovation in global journalism. Peter Klein is the GRC’s founder. Philippe LeBillon, a Global Reporting Centre partner and geography professor at the University of British Columbia, provided valuable input to this series. 

The entire series of On China’s New Silk Road was made possible by generous funding from Humanity United, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find photos, transcripts and more at globalreportingcentre.org. And while you’re there, check out other great journalism from the Global Reporting Centre. 

A note for listeners who are coming along on the New Silk Road as episodes roll out: we’re continuing the journey, but slowing down the pace to biweekly for our final three episodes – giving you time to pay attention to the US election, which will affect the world, and may even affect China’s New Silk Road.    

Up next:

Unidentified Voice: When people talk about different internets and ecosystems in the context of China versus the US, or China versus the US and Europe, or the rest of the world, we are starting to see some of that happen, and that’s happening through the Digital Silk Road. 

We look at the Digital Silk Road next – on China’s New Silk Road. 

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