Greenland and the Arctic: The Emergence of a New Sovereign State?


2014-01-16 During a visit to Denmark in 2011, SLD had a chance to discuss the nature of the Arctic completion or perhaps better co-opetition with Admiral Nils Wang, Commandant of the Royal Danish Defence College and former head of the Danish Navy.

Recently, Admiral Wang has coauthored a report with Dr. Damien Degeorges on Greenland and the New Arctic.

According to the authors:

This paper focuses on the challenges Greenland faces on its journey to possible statehood, and offers an answer to the question of whether it is possible for Greenland to fulfill the ambition of being an independent sovereign nation in its own right.

Obviously, this has implications as well for the United States and others in working with Denmark, Norway and Greenland in shaping an effective Arctic future.

The authors characterize the Arctic situation as follows:

In May 2008, the five Arctic coastal states – the United States, Russia, Canada,Norway and the Kingdom of Denmark, including Greenland4, signed the Ilulissat Declaration. The declaration established that the ”Arctic Five” will lay claim to the sea territorial rights awarded to them by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the  Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)5, and that they will settle disputes within the framework of existing international law. 

This was a very strong message to those NGOs and non-Arctic states arguing that the Arctic should be governed by its own protective treaty, just as the Antarctic. 

All five of the Arctic coastal states, as well as Sweden, Finland and Iceland, are members of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among member states. This included the involvement of permanent participants representing Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants. 

The growing geostrategic importance of the Arctic region is rapidly increasing the prominence of the Arctic Council. 

The Kiruna ministerial meeting in May 2013 was a pinnacle of this development when the eight member states agreed to grant permanent observer status to China, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Italy. Six European states (France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) have previously been granted this status. A “final decision on implementation” regarding the affirmatively received application of the European Union to become a permanent observer was blocked by Canada, due to the existing EU ban on seal products. 

The Kiruna meeting thus demonstrated that the Arctic Council has become a substantial international organization, capable of conveying important political messages to other international actors. 

The downside of this development, however, is an increasingly state-centric Arctic Council that might unintentionally reduce the influence of the NGOs representing the indigenous people from the region. 

With the two first legally binding agreements on “Cooperation in Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic” and “Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic”, the Arctic Council has demonstrated that it can also be an effective decision-making forum for operational-level issues. 

Although some might consider this a relatively limited achievement, it clearly indicates that coast guard functions, such as Search and Rescue and Oil Spill Response, are becoming increasingly important. 

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that about 13% of the undiscovered oil, 30% of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world are located in the Arctic region.

Though the discovery of shale gas might reduce immediate demand, the Arctic resources constitute a valuable future global energy reserve, and a viable alternative for reducing dependency on the Middle East. 

In addition, the Arctic region contains an abundance of other natural resources, such as minerals and fish. These natural treasures are becoming increasingly accessible due to the retreating ice; enabling maritime transport to and from hitherto frozen and remote resource locations. 

This will inevitably lead to an extensive exploitation of resources in the Arctic region, driven by ever-increasing demand for mineral and marine resources by the growing global middle class and their increased buying power. Nobody can really afford not to. 

It is a widespread perception that this “scramble for resources” will take place in an ungoverned and unregulated region. 

However, it is estimated that 97% of the oil and gas reserves in the Arctic Ocean are located within the already-determined and, until now, unquestioned Exclusive Economic Zones of the Arctic coastal states. 

As the majority of the known minerals in the region are located ashore, almost all known natural resources in the Arctic region are already legitimately owned by a state. 

This does not exclude the possibility of conflicts and disputes, but it certainly reduces the risk significantly, and the “scramble” is likely to be commercial in nature, not military. 

Despite global warming, the Arctic is still a very remote part of the world with almost no infrastructure, making exploitation of fossil energy and minerals, a technically challenging and very expensive endeavor. 

The ability to attract significant long-term investments is therefore of paramount importance, and this will only be possible in a stable security environment. 

Consequently, a “commercial scramble” for the Arctic resources could arguably have a mitigating effect on outstanding territorial conflicts, promoting the resolution of old border disputes and other disagreements, using internationally recognized rules and judicial processes. 

In 2012, the Northern Sea Route was navigated by 46 merchant ships. In 2013, 71 merchant ships sailed through this waterway, including the “Yong Cheng” from China, the first container ship ever to transit via the Northern Sea Route. 

If the dwindling of multi-year ice in the polar seas continues as forecasted, this will allow for a more systematic use of the polar seas and their related sea routes, as the sailing distance between Northern Europe and the Far East would be considerably reduced in comparison with the traditional route through the Suez Canal.   

A likely development in the short term may be a significant increase in the regional maritime activities associated with oil and gas extraction, mining, fishing and cruise-ship tourism. Evidence of this trend can already be seen off the coasts of Greenland. 

When looking at a map centered on the North Pole, it not only becomes obvious that Greenland is geographically located at the very center of the Arctic region but also that it is situated in the middle of a regional geopolitical system with significant global implications. 

The Ilulissat Declaration from 2008 and the inclusion of new permanent observers in the Arctic Council in 2013, which added China, together with the huge economic interests in a peaceful development of the region, have created what could be characterized as a fragile but stable equilibrium. 

Granted, this stable environment might be conducive to the further development of Greenland’s statehood aspirations. 

However, rushed independence and the cessation of Danish institutional support could leave Greenland unable to articulate its sovereignty sufficiently in the relevant political forums. 

The ensuing competition between regional countries or actors for influence could quickly become a source of regional instability 

To download the paper, please go to the Danish Royal Defence College Website:

Or click below:

Greenland and the New Arctic

Editor’s Note: One cause for concern is the impact of outside powers in trying to shape Greenland’s destiny to their advantage.

The Chinese are actively engaged in shaping an Arctic strategy, and while the U.S. remains a “reluctant Arctic power,” the PRC – although not a member of the Arctic Council – is not. 

The Chinese according to Danish sources have targeted rare earth mineral supplies in Greenland and have used a variety of means to achieve a key role in leveraging these assets.