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Greenland’s courting of China for airport projects worries Denmark

A general view of the port of Nuuk, Greenland. Photo: Reuters

A general view of the port of Nuuk, Greenland. Photo: Reuters

Greenland is courting Chinese investors and construction companies to help expand three airports, raising concern in the Danish government that Chinese involvement could upset its ally, the US.

Chinese interest in Greenland, a self-ruling part of the Kingdom of Denmark, comes after Beijing in January laid out ambitions to form a Polar Silk Road by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

Greenland, also eager to benefit from growing activity in the Arctic, plans to expand the airports in the capital Nuuk, the tourist hub in Ilulissat and at Qaqortoq in southern Greenland to allow direct flights from Europe and North America.

The island lacks simple infrastructure for its tiny population of only 56,000, has no roads between the country’s 17 towns and, for now, only one commercial international airport, at Kangerlussuaq, Western Greenland.

During a visit headed by Greenland’s Premier Kim Kielsen to Beijing late last year, the delegation met representatives of engineering and construction company China Communications Construction Co and Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

Now, Chinese construction companies have appeared on a list of 11 companies or consortia that have shown interest in the projects with an estimated cost of £422.6 million, according to Kalaallit Airports, a state-owned company set up to build, own and operate the airports.

Other interested companies are from Denmark, Iceland, Canada, the Netherlands and the Faroe Islands, the company’s chairman Johannus Egholm Hansen told Reuters.

The company expects to shortlist five or six of them this month or next and begin construction in October, he said.

Greenland’s government declined to comment on the Chinese interest.

“Our visit to China should be viewed in the context of seeking funding to these future investments,” Kielsen said during the visit to Beijing, following meetings with the Export-Import Bank of China.

EXIM, CCCC and BCEG did not reply when contacted via e-mail and fax.

Chinese activity in Greenland is met with strong opposition in Copenhagen. A defence treaty between Denmark and the US dating back to 1951 gives the US military almost unlimited rights in Greenland, site of Thule air base.

“We are deeply concerned. China has no business in Greenland,” a high-ranking Danish government official in Copenhagen told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“Denmark has a big responsibility to live up to with regards to our closest ally, the US,” the person said.

While Greenland’s self-rule authority decides on most domestic matters, foreign and security policy is handled by Copenhagen. Foreign investment in infrastructure projects is a grey zone, but if China is involved, Copenhagen holds the right to say no, the government source said.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Defence Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen and Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen all declined to comment.

The US Embassy in Copenhagen also declined immediate comment.

“It’s obvious that the US doesn’t want a superpower like China to have such large-scale access to Greenland,” Soren Espersen, spokesman for foreign and security affairs of the Danish People’s Party, a key ally of the minority government, told Reuters.

“Denmark cannot play on two horses. The government in Copenhagen has to stop the Chinese plans, because if it doesn’t, the US will,” he said.

In 2016, the Danish government on direct orders from Washington prevented a Chinese investor from buying a former marine station in southern Greenland, according to sources.

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