Is China on the cusp of a polar buy-out?

Greenland has a population of around 55,000, less than most medium-sized British towns. Nor is it, officially, an independent nation, but an autonomous territory of the Danish Crown, yet its geopolitical significance is sharply on the rise. Greenland is home to one of the world’s largest deposits of “Rare Earth” minerals, and it is for this reason that all eyes are on the Island’s April 6th election in which the incumbent administration faces a challenge to its plans to open up its natural resources to “Greenland Minerals”, an Australian company with a Chinese partner that haemorrhaged $83 million on environmental, safety and feasibility studies in the hope of approval.

Commonly referred to as “Rare Earths” (REs), these materials include any of a group of chemically similar metallic elements comprising the lanthanide series and (usually) scandium and yttrium. Their name dates to a Swedish army lieutenant’s discovery of the elements in 1787, and is something of a misnomer today given that most REs are not especially ‘rare’ in nature. RE mining however, given the significant environmental hazards and Beijing’s domination of supply since the 1980s, is a rarity outside China.

But why are REs so important? Because without them, it is impossible to create high-tech devices. RE magnets often represent only a small fraction of the total weight of devices, but without them, the spindle motors and voice coils of desktops and laptops, not to mention cellular telephones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, and flat-screen monitors and television and even the flints in cigarette lighters would not be possible. More than half of all existing RE supplies are mined in China, but Beijing, and its customers in the US & Europe, are keenly aware of the finiteness of these reserves. The fact that the Kvanefjeld mine site, the proposed location for Greenland Minerals’ extractions, also sits atop the world’s sixth-largest Uranium deposits doesn’t harm the Island’s appeal either.

Indeed, last month’s release of Beijing’s 14th Five-Year Plan included an unprecedented focus, and specific statement on, further developing the ‘Polar Silk Road’ as a component of the $8 billion Belt and Road Initiative. According to Marc Lanteigne, Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, given its RE reserves, Greenland is the ‘make-or-break’ component of China’s Polar ambitions.

Of course, this is a question for Greenland itself, and indeed a heated debate regarding the future of its resources is ongoing ahead of the pending election. Beijing has claimed that its investment in Greenland will help diversify its economy and hopes it will aid China in maintaining its near-monopoly on the global RE supplies. Both points are arguably true, and some Greenlanders are excited by the prospect of profits from the Kvanefjeld mine accelerating Greenland’s road toward independence from Denmark as opposed to its current limited self-rule. But for Greenland, is it really worth decreasing dependence on Denmark, only to end up as a quasi-colony of Beijing?

As local environmentalist Mikkel Myrup told The Daily Telegraph “China’s own environmental record is not good, and if the Chinese government gets a foothold here, we will have to have a lot of other discussions – it is a non-democratic government with no respect for human rights.” Opponents of the mine also have specific environmental concerns. The Kvanefjeld mine, which would be the second-largest RE mine in the world, would pose a grave risk to the local ecosystem, which is home to one of Greenland’s only arable regions. Many residents of Narsaq, the small town six kilometres from the proposed mine site, are alarmed at the possibility of radioactive dust from the mine’s construction settling on their farms, and that runoff from radioactive tailings will poison their water.

So three things are clear. Firstly, that exploitation of natural resources will provide a sure path to economic growth for Greenland. Secondly, that this path must be handled sensibly and with the utmost respect for the environment and local communities. Thirdly, that it is unsensible, both politically and environmentally speaking, to allow Beijing to dominate this process. Both geographically and culturally, Greenland has more obvious partners in the US and Europe. Yet ultimately these decisions lie with Greenland’s voters, and only after they hit the polls this Tuesday will we have a more accurate picture of where their priorities lie.

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