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Why do American presidents want to buy Greenland?

  • 19 Aug 2019

The world’s largest island has long been on the mind of successive American leaders who have been interested in its strategic and economic value.

( AP )

US President Donald Trump stirred controversy last week by suggesting that Washington should consider buying Greenland, a sparsely populated region covered in snow.

This is not the first time an American president has made such an offer.

In 1946, former president Harry Truman put a price tag of $100 million ($1.3 billion in today’s dollars) on the world’s largest island.

The latest offer was met with derision in Greenland and Denmark. Greenland is an autonomous part of Denmark. 

“We are open for business, but we’re not for sale,” Greenland’s Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters. 

A former Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, likened Trump’s tweet to a belated April Fool’s joke. 

Greenland, which sits between the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans, depends on yearly grants from Denmark for support and has struggled to kickstart a stagnant economy. 

And Danish officials have made it clear that a real estate transaction is not part of any future plans. 

“Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this not meant seriously,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a newspaper in comments on Trump’s remarks. 

The United States has a history of buying land from other countries. In 1917, it purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark. The state of Louisiana once belonged to France and Florida was purchased from Spain. The US also bought Alaska from the then Russian Empire for peanuts.

But why did Trump consider Greenland, where 80 percent of the land is covered by three-kilometre-thick snow? 

It could be strategic. 

A watchtower near Russia

The US has maintained an airbase in Greenland since the early 1950s. The Thule base was a result of an understanding with NATO ally Denmark during the Cold War era, when the threat of transcontinental ballistic missiles was real. 

Thule is home to a ballistic missile early warning system. The defence treaty with Denmark gives the US considerable right to use the territory. But Greenlanders have in the past protested against scaling up the defence operation. 

Russia also used the water corridors around Greenland to send its ships and submarines to the Atlantic during the Cold War. 

There has been a growing concern in Washington about Russian activity in the Arctic and earlier this year it sent an aircraft carrier there for the first time in a decade. 

“Thule’s position on the globe and its radar’s 240 degrees of coverage — which projects over the Arctic Ocean and Russia’s northern coast — make it an ideal location to track intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites in low-Earth orbit, including polar orbit satellites,” stated an article on Defencenews.com.  

But the US has shown little concern for the 57,000 inhabitants of Greenland. Washington does not have a diplomatic mission there and no American airline operates direct flights to the island. 

In fact, most people travelling to Greenland go first to Denmark or Iceland and then use a turboprop aircraft for the onward journey to Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. 

The REE rush

Building larger international airports, which can handle bigger airplanes, has been on the agenda of Greenland’s government for a few years now. 

Officials want to promote tourism as a source of revenue in a country that relies on fisheries for 90 percent of its exports 

But an attempt by Greenland, which has its own parliament, to award contracts to build three new airports, including one in Nuuk to Chinese contractors, was thwarted by the US last year. 

Chinese companies have already made inroads in the island. Greenland Minerals is an Australian mining company that wants to develop the Kvanefjeld mine, which has deposits of rare earth elements used in making smartphones, electric car batteries and wind turbines. Shenghe Resources, a Chinese firm, is a major shareholder in the project. 

Since 2009, when Greenland was given power over its natural resources, politicians have tried to reinvigorate the economy through the extraction and export of minerals. Right now, it has only two active mines. 

There’s hope that melting ice sheets will make more land available for the exploration of minerals. 

Mining was once important to Greenland’s economy. Between 1854 and 1962 it was a major supplier of cryolite, a mineral used in the processing of aluminium. 

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