By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Aug 29 2019 – The last frontier for utilizing and maybe even exhausting Earth´s natural resources is opening up in the Arctic and some of the world´s wealthiest nations are trying to secure their piece of the cake. Some act openly, others are more secretive – recently one of the competitors entered the game in a remarkably unwieldy manner.
Lysekil is a picturesque town by Skagerak, a strait between Sweden, Denmark and Norway, opening up to the North Sea. For many years its main income came from salted herring and train oil, while it during the 19th century developed into a popular spa and bathing resort. Most Swedes know Lysekil as the birthplace of Kalle´s Caviar a popular sandwich spread of creamed smoked roe produced by Abba Seafood, a brand that provided the name for a Swedish pop group of world renown.
Many Swedes were astonished when Gunter Gao Jingde, chairman of a Hong Kong private investment company, Sunbase International (Holdings) Ltd., gave the city council of Lysekil an offer they did not refuse. Sunbase was established in 1991 and is active in property investment, transport, infrastructure and technology. It was in late November 2017 that Sunbase´s long-running and secretive negotiations with members of Lysekil´s city council were revealed. At this tiny community of 7,500 inhabitants Gunter Gao Jingde´s representatives proposed the construction of Scandinavia’s largest port. Town officials accepted the offer without any public consultation. Under Swedish law, the power to approve such projects is entirely in the hands of the local municipalities and cannot be challenged from above. Lysekil´s city council was tempted by a generous offer that did not only include an expansion of the town harbour, making it deep enough to receive huge vessels from all over the world. On top of that, Sunbase promised to expand the road net and railway system reaching Lysekil, bridging the nearby fjord of Gullmarn and invest in schools, hospitals and care for the elderly.
It was a reportage aired on Swedish national radio that alerted the people of Lysekil. Several of them declared that their elected representatives had taken them for a ride. The chairman of the City Council vented his anger over these “exaggerated protests”. After all, he and his colleagues had negotiated a deal with a foreign, private firm promising a bright future for Lysekil and he pointed out that VOLVO, the Swedish prestigious car manufacture in neighbouring Gothenburg, was a subsidiary of the Chinese motor company Geely. However, local protests became even more vociferous when it was revealed that Gao Jingde was not only a member of the small-circle Election Committee which selects the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region Government of the People´s Republic of China and since 1993 also a member of the Chinese People´s Political Advisory Conference a legislative advisory body of the People´s Republic of China. Furthermore, Sunbase is closely connected with the Chinese military establishment, among other things it owns the 18 Hong Kong land areas occupied by military installations and Gao Jingde has personally financed the publication of various books about China´s military forces.
Local opponents to the sale of Lysekil´s harbour became particularly upset when they could not be provided with any concrete guarantees that the planned port would not serve any Chinese military interests. Petitions signed by a long list of opponents to the Chinese deal was submitted to Lysekil´s city council and while facing negative publicity and local anger Sunbase finally called off the entire venture. 1
Why would China be interested in purchasing a port from a small, Swedish town and turn it into a huge state-of-the-art seaport structure? Most commentators agree that the initiative was probably related to the Chinese Government´s global strategy of infrastructure development and worldwide investment – The Belt and Road Initiative. The Lysekil port would become one link in what has been referred to as the Polar Silk Road, which through Chinese controlled ports and industrial hubs would be connected with a Pan-Asian Silk Road. From a transport point of view such an Arctic thoroughfare makes sense since sailing a container ship from China to northern Europe via the Arctic Sea north of Russia would shorten the alternative journey time via the Suez canal by 10 days.
However, this is probably not the only reason for China´s interest in the Arctic realms. Climate change and global warming are currently opening up access to Arctic riches, wetting the appetite of nations bordering the Arctic sea, and not only them – China has demonstrated a great interest in the untapped resources that have laid frozen and inaccessible in the distant north. The Arctic conceals huge deposits of minerals as well as an estimated 13 percent of the world´s oil reserves and 30 percent of the natural gas reserves.
Into this sensitive web of delicate, diplomatic maneuvers and carefully constructed plans for future exploitation of the Arctic U.S. President Donald J. Trump now has entered like an elephant in a porcelain shop, or as the Danish Newspaper Berlingske described his appearance – a clown stumbling into a circus ring. While the Danes´ were preparing for a state visit of the American President he suddenly offered to buy Greenland from them, declaring:
- Essentially it’s a large real estate deal. A lot of things can be done. Ownership of Greenland is hurting Denmark very badly because they’re losing almost $700 million a year carrying it. 2
The Danish Government was flabbergasted, the Royal Court scandalized and the Greenlanders horrified, one of them, Else Mathiesen told local media:
- You can’t just buy an island or a people. This sounds like something from the era of slavery and colonial power. 3
The Danish Pime Minister stated:
- Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously. 4
An undeterred Trump replicated:
- Denmark essentially owns it [Greenland]. We’re very good allies with Denmark, we protect Denmark like we protect large portions of the world. So the concept came up and I said ”Certainly I’d be strategically interested,”and we’d be interested, but we’ll talk to them a little bit.” It’s not No1 on the burner, I can tell you that. 5
After the debacle a deeply hurt Trump canceled his visit to Denmark, declaring:
- I thought the prime minister’s statement that it was an absurd idea was nasty.
It was not a nice way of doing it. She could have just said, ”No, we’d rather not do it.” She’s not talking to me, she’s talking to the United States of America. They can’t say: ”How absurd.” 6
Trump´s ungainly behaviour has ripped open a sensitive scare. Greenland was until 1953 a Danish colony. In 1979, the Danish government granted home rule to the vast territory and in 2008 agreed to allow Kalaallit Nunaat, as it is called in Inuit, to gradually assume responsibility for policing, jurisdiction, mining and border control, while the Danish government retains its control of foreign affairs and defense. However, an increasing confidence fuelled by prospects of controlling the vast natural resources of the Arctic Sea make many of Greenland´s 55,000 inhabitants, the majority of them Inuit, favouring full independence from Denmark and Trump´s lack of diplomatic skills and ignorance of people´s rights have reignited the debate.
Like during the late 19th century´s ”scramble for Africa”, world powers are now in for a race to control riches that actually belong to others. A competition incited by greed and recklessness that may prove harmful to indigenous peoples, the environment and even world peace, in particular if stakeholders express dated opinions and behave with the blatant brutality of the current U.S. President.
1 Olssson, Jojje (2017) “Sanningen bakom Kinas miljardinvestering i Lysekil.” Fokus, December 29. Sunbase closed the negotiations on the 30th of January 2018: “Ingen kinesisk hamn i Lysekil”, Göteborgsposten, 30 January, 2018.
2 Pengelly, Martin (2019) ”Trump confirms he is considering attempt to buy Greenland,” The Guardian, 18 August.
5 Tisdall, Simon (2019) ”Trump´s bid to buy Greenland shows that the ´scramble for the Arctic´ is truly upon us,” The Guardian, 24 August.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.