Denmark will chair the Arctic Council in 2025 – what is it up against?

Despite its founding mandate not to address military security, the Arctic Council is now under immense pressure to break its own rule as geopolitical storm clouds mass over its eight member states. In 2025, Denmark will take up the rotating chairship. It is both a great challenge and a great opportunity in a complicated and important region.

Photo courtesy of The Arctic Council

In 2025, Denmark will become chair of the Arctic Council – a position that brings both great challenges and a great opportunities.

Now nearing thirty years old, the Council was originally founded to be a knowledge sharing and development forum between the Arctic states.

Its eight members – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US – all have territory inside the Arctic Circle, while indigenous arctic communities are represented by interest organisations who sit on the council as Permanent Participants (PP).

Each rotating chair nation publishes an official programme outlining its agenda, and is responsible for organising the biannual Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meeting, where high-level delegates meet to hash out policy priorities and report back on progress or hurdles.

But when Denmark takes up the rotating two-year chairmanship, it will inherit a mandate that is straining at the leash to go beyond it’s original bounds.

What’s on Denmark’s plate?
Though Arctic policy priorities differ, every Arctic state is concerned with sovereignty, resource development, shipping routes, and environmental protection.

There are a major ongoing territorial disputes over waterways, many of which are becoming more easily accessible as sea-ice melts due to climate change.

This topic is especially hot in Canada, where sovereignty over the so-called Northwest Passage arouses substantial public concern.

Other headline tensions relate to patches of Arctic seabed. Vast deep-sea reserves of oil, gas and minerals in the Arctic have spurred thorny territory disputes amongst member states.

States can extend their exclusive right to exploit resources on the continental shelf if they can prove that seabed more than 200 nautical miles (370 km) from their baseline is a “natural prolongation” of their land.

Big oil nations Canada, Russia, and Denmark (via Greenland) have therefore all submitted partially overlapping land claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), and will need to negotiate to divide these overlapping claims once the CLCS delivers its ruling.

Geopolitical drift
Though the Ottawa Declaration – the Arctic Council’s founding charter – states that the council “should not deal with matters related to military security”, it has increasingly drifted in that direction.

So much, that on the evening of the 2019 Arctic Council meeting that capped Finland’s chairmanship, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the region an “arena for power and for competition” and urged the eight Arctic states to “adapt to this new future”.

And though it has classically preached a credo of ‘low tension in the Arctic’, Denmark is increasingly being forced to reveal its strategic hand as China shows explicit interest in Greenland, an autonomous territory in the Kingdom of Denmark.

In 2016 for example, when the Hong Kong-based company General Nice attempted to take over the abandoned naval base Grønnedal, then-Prime Minister Rasmussen allegedly stepped in to prevent the acquisition.

Denmark resisted Chinese growth in the Arctic again in 2018, when it financed half of the airports in Greenland rather than allow the bid from China Communications Construction Company to build them.

And it’s not only China eyeing Greenland: in 2019, Donald Trump brazenly stated that the US should buy Greenland. This was swiftly rebuked by Greenland with the words “we’re open for business, not for sale”.

These jostling concerns about the ostensibly ‘low tension’ Arctic region were crystalised in Denmark’s 2022 Foreign and Security Policy Strategy, where it pegged the Arctic as “a geopolitical battleground”.

Chinese investment grabs and deep-sea resource disputes aside, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has been the biggest driver of Denmark’s heightened security interests in the Arctic of late.

In two years, Canada, Norway and Denmark have rapidly increased their defence presence and military infrastructure in the Arctic to keep in step with Russia – no small task given, as Russia pointed out in its 2021-23 Arctic Council chairmanship programme, the country “accounts for almost a third of the Arctic with a population of over 2.5 million people”.

This has also inspired a significant change in Denmark’s stance on NATO in the Arctic. Where it once considered NATO’s presence a spanner in the works of cooperation talks, it now supports the alliance’s “increased attention in the region”.

Russian invasion severs communications
But cooperation inside the Arctic Council is strained far more by Russia than by NATO.

In March 2022, all official meetings were paused when the seven other member states refused to convene under Russian chairmanship because of its invasion of Ukraine.

By the time Norway took over the council in May 2023, partial cooperation had resumed on a small number of previously approved projects without Russian leadership or participation.

But the Norwegians’ programme was significantly hamstrung by the inability to cooperate with Russia. So much so that, after a year at the helm, the Norwegian chair of SAO described Norway’s “main achievement” as “making progress to advance the resumption of project-level work”.

Internal governance disputes
When Denmark takes up the mantle, it will have the same stonewall to contend with. But its chairmanship will likely be marked by internal issues, too.

In 2023, Denmark’s appointment of Tobias Elling Rehfeld as Arctic Ambassador – tasked with representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands in Denmark’s overall Arctic foreign policy – despite his having no connection to the region, raised hackles in Greenland, whose tensions with the Danish government go back centuries.

“The procedure shows what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thinks of us and how it does not include us, even though we are the kingdom’s Arctic country,” Greenlandic Prime Minister Mute Egede told Danish daily Politiken. “The picture speaks for itself.”

Renewable energy likely a big focus
As for the opportunities that may define Denmark’s Arctic Council chairmanship in 2025, likely they will be tied to the Arctic Council Strategic Plan, which was adopted in Reykjavik in 2021 and is up for a mid-term review in 2025.

Its four big topical areas are “the oceans, climate and environment, sustainable economic development, and people in the North”.

Where these areas overlap with Denmark’s earlier 2011-2020 Arctic Strategy will be particularly rich areas for development – renewable energy sources, for example, “must be significantly strengthened”.

In practice, this could take the form of support for the development of local renewable energy solutions in Greenland’s smaller towns and villages, and the (careful, given recent Chinese experiences) promotion of Greenland’s opportunities to host industrial renewable energy production.

Denmark’s previous arctic strategy also promised that living resources, including fish, shellfish and marine mammals, would “be exploited in a sustainable manner based on a scientific basis.”

And raw materials “must be utilized under the highest international standards… with a high social return”.

The Danish chairmanship – if it can continue the Norway’s work to thaw project-level work – will also likely focus on environmental and climactic research in the Arctic, in which it aspires to “be in the global driving field”.

In December this year, the annual Arctic Futures Symposium will take stock of the region’s development with input from local and national policymakers, Arctic indigenous peoples, natural and social scientists, academics, and industry representatives.

Here, Rehfeld is scheduled to give a panel talk on what aspects of the Norwegian chairmanship the Kingdom of Denmark’s chairmanship will carry over – suggesting that several of Norway’s unfinished policies will be given a second wind in 2025.

A chance to bring indigenous social rights to the fore
Marc Jacobsen, an assistant professor at Royal Danish Defence College and researcher in Arctic security politics and diplomacy, thinks that societal security and indigenous communities should be a top priority, given that Norway, the Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden – three countries driven by strong social democratic ideologies – will chair the council consecutively for 6 years.

A major cause of deteriorating societal security is strained border relations with Russia in the region, with Jacobsen noting in particular “the concern uttered by Sámi and Inuit representatives about the lack of interaction with their counterparts in Russia following the war in Ukraine”.

He argues that the Nordic countries could do more to “pragmatically counter the negative narrative” by focusing more on societal security, citing as an example Norway’s Wildland Fire Initiative, which platforms the issue on the Arctic Council agenda by making information better publicly accessible.

“This initiative certainly fits within the umbrella of ‘societal security’, where the currently moderate ambition of ‘knowledge sharing’ can hopefully be the first step to put out more fires.

The Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden would be well advised if they follow suit along the same lines. One way to do so could be through emphasizing better protection of the rights of Arctic Indigenous peoples,” he says.

In April 2024, Deputy Head of Representation of Greenland in Washington D.C. Rebecca Joy Lynge spoke about including Indigenous Peoples “in all relevant decision-making procedures” – describing it as “unique and of utmost importance”.

Looking ahead to Denmark’s 2025-27 chairmanship, she confirmed that Denmark will strengthen the Inuit Circumpolar Council – an Indigenous Peoples’ Organization representing the 180,000 Inuit and Yupik people living in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the Chukchi Peninsula.

Jacobsen suggests aiming even higher. If Denmark, Sweden and Norway work together, they could achieve “a new binding agreement regarding better protection of the rights of Arctic Indigenous peoples”.

Currently, as negotiating with Russia is off the Arctic Council table, such an agreement is not possible.

But, depending on how the war and diplomatic relations develop, it may not be out of the question before Sweden’s chairmanship ends in 2029.

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