Arctic Challenge for Sustainability Project

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Report of the FY2016 Program for Overseas Visits by Young Researchers :Ten months at Aalborg University

Aalborg, the fourth largest city in Denmark (See Photo 1), is known as the town in which the largest number of Greenlanders in Denmark live (See the following article in Greenland’s national newspaper Sermitsiaq, electronic edition, March 7, 2018: “Rekordmange grønlændere bor i Danmark”) (Also, see Photo 2). The city also has strong industrial and trade ties with Greenland - there is a port that serves as a major transport hub in the exchange with Greenland (Greenland Havn) and the headquarters of Royal Greenland, the world’s largest supplier of maritime products, are located. Thanks to the financial support of the ArCS’ Program for Overseas Visits by Young Researchers, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend ten months, from 20 March 2017 to 31 January 2018, in that city where, although in Denmark, one can feel the presence of Greenland a lot.

As I wrote in my interim report, the thrust of my research during this period was aimed at empirically clarifying the logic and the political and historical background behind the “Strategy of the Kingdom of Denmark for the Arctic, 2011-2020” (“Kongeriget Danmarks Strategi for Arktis, 2011-2020”. Hereafter: “Strategy”). Concretely, I focused on the US military base in Greenland (the Thule Air Base), which is the most likely venue for the implementation of the “Strategy” and is regarded as having the highest usage value as a future hub for cooperation or a platform for coordination, and endeavored to shed light on the history of its operation in the postwar period (As will be mentioned later in more detail, this research is scheduled to be published in 2018 in the book I will edit). 

In the “Strategy”, two political goals are put forth. One is to respect and enhance Greenland’s right to be heard, i.e., its autonomy. The other is to secure the position of the Danish state as one of the main players in the Arctic. It should be noted that, as the venue that connects both of these objectives, the largest military base in the Arctic region, the US airbase in Thule, which was opened during World War II and now functions as a foothold in the US missile defense shield, was selected. The base in Thule is expected to be used not just for military purposes, but for a broader array of uses, and is thought to have the sufficient potential for that. What is meant by potential are the already existing logistic capabilities, such as a sea port that can handle the harsh winter conditions of northwest Greenland, tanks and oil storages, factories, a hospital, and accommodation facilities. That is, it is believed that activities in the Arctic, including Greenland, will inevitably intensify as the possibilities for the exploitation of natural resources and commercial use of sea lanes grow due to the environmental changes caused by the melting of the ice sheet in Greenland in recent years, so the Thule base is not only expected to serve as a hub for hosting different facilities and troops, but is also seen as the crucial component of the Danish strategy. In fact, Denmark, which does not possess geographical proximity to the Arctic Ocean, can secure a legal access to the Arctic Ocean only through the autonomous territory of Greenland, which is geographically adjacent to that ocean, and thus, it can be said, is forced to formulate its national strategy towards the Arctic from the interstice between geographical and legal proximity, i.e., from the standpoint of geographic neutrality. And since Thule has (or is being given) an important role in maintaining it, during the period in which I received the support for studying abroad I mainly focused on the postwar history of the operation of the base in Thule and endeavored to empirically shed light on the logic and background of the “Strategy”. 

First, I gathered and arranged the literature and historic material from Denmark, Greenland and the United States on US military bases in Greenland in the period from World War II to the Cold War era, during which, first attempts, and then the actual placement of bases and troop deployment were conducted, and examined the history of the bases and points of dispute regarding them. Furthermore, by supplementing that with the interviews I conducted with researchers from the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and Greenland’s Self-Rule Government, decision makers from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office for Foreign Relations of the Greenland’s Self-Rule Government, as well as with indigenous people from the Qaanaaq area of Greenland where the Thule base is located, I was able to identify the contours of my research for the period of my overseas visit. As a result, I was able to shed light on the fact the Danish state has largely relied on the US Thule Air Base in Greenland for its access to the Arctic, and that, at least Thule, has functioned as an extremely important diplomatic arena. 

Second, I continued my fieldwork in Denmark and Greenland, and worked on bringing to light the political dynamics regarding the operation of the Thule base by adding trends among political actors outside the Arctic region, such as the United State Congress, to my efforts for accumulating empirical data. Also, since in recent years due to the influence of the melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean and sovereignty issues it brings about, Thule has been singled out as the headquarters of the so called “Arctic forces”, which include combat aircraft and a rapid reaction unit, I investigated and analyzed in what way (the sub-state actor of) Greenland has been involved in that. That is, using a multilateral, multi-archive approach, I aimed to shed light not only on the main object of analysis, the Danish state, but also on with what strategic interest the US, the country that established the base, has looked at Greenland and the security in Arctic, as well as on how the regional power Russia has reacted to such developments. At the same time, by including in that research the cases of Okinawa and the Philippines as reference axes for thinking about the interaction between the US politics regarding overseas bases and host countries polities, I was able to throw light on how the local voices, i.e., self-regulation and self-rule by the sub-state actors, manifest themselves and function. In other words, together with the policy decision process in the host area itself and the mainland’s internal political dynamics, I have also incorporated as explanation variables the strategies regarding military bases and the Arctic region of the provider of the bases the United States and Russia, which has been intensifying its military activities in the Arctic in recent years by sending and stationing submarines, building naval basis and refurbishing the existing military installations. This is because the existence of the Thule base cannot be explained by looking only at Greenland’s own decision-making process and is to a large extent influenced by Denmark’s internal political dynamics, as well as international political trends regarding military bases. 

Third, while doing a follow-up survey of policy makers, I was able to draw conclusions regarding the value and the expected effects of the Thule base, based on the insights I gained through the above two work procedures. Since in the “Strategy”, Thule is expected to function as a hub or platform for international cooperation, I examined the feasibility of such plans. In doing so, I have managed to shed light on the diversification of the purpose of the base, both from the viewpoint of the Danish state and the US. The Arctic region has for a long time been regarded as a venue for scientific research, and in it numerous geological and maritime surveys have been conducted. Also, a lot of interest has been directed to the operation of the Thule base in regard to the variability in its post-cold war “specificity” (i.e., the lowering of the incentive to restrict the base’s use to military purposes) - a trend that has, it may be said, become very pronounced. This is because the usage of the base as a stepping stone for the prospection and exploitation of resources is a likely direction in which the purpose of the base will diversify, thus reducing its specificity as a military facility. 

Furthermore, I wish to add that, although my own research was supported by the program for overseas visits by young researchers, by using other funds and combining research projects, a collaboration with five other researchers has been realized, which is now bearing fruits that exceed what was initially planned. The main achievements will be arranged into a book edited by myself, which is scheduled to be published during 2018.

Here is a brief outline of the book: 

TAKAHASHI, Minori (ed.) (Forthcoming). The Influence of Sub-State Actors on National Security. Springer.

  • Introduction: The Influence of Sub-State Actors on National Security (Minori Takahashi)
  • Chapter 1: Base Politics and the Hold-up Problem (Shinji Kawana)
  • Chapter 2: Greenland’s Quest for Autonomy and the Political Dynamics Surrounding the Thule Air Base (Minori Takahashi)
  • Chapter 3: How Have the U.S. Interests in Greenland Changed? Reconstructing the Perceived Value of Thule Air Base after the Cold War (Kousuke Saitou)
  • Chapter 4: Russia's Military Build-up in the Arctic: Russia's Perception of Threat and its Military Strategy in the Arctic Region(Yuu Koizumi)
  • Chapter 5: Okinawa’s Search for Autonomy and Tokyo’s Commitment to the Japan-US Alliance (Shino Hateruma)
  • Chapter 6: The Political Dynamics and Impacts Surrounding Subic Naval Base in the Philippines (Ayae Shimizu)
  • Conclusion (Minori Takahashi) 

The Aalborg University Arctic Research Group (See Photo 3) has written an article about the content of my research and the research activities I conducted during my stay at their university as a recipient of the grant of the Program for Overseas Visits by Young Researchers

Also, the seminar on Arctic politics held on 8 December 2017 at the Aalborg University campus in Copenhagen (“Arctic Politics Research Seminar 2017”) can be mentioned as one of the outputs or achievements of my research during my stay abroad.

Furthermore, in line with the content clearly stated in the description of the Program for Overseas Visits by Young Researchers that the “the knowledge and contacts acquired at the dispatch destination should be effectively used” and that “efforts should be made to ensure that the knowledge take root and the human network be maintained and strengthened”, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cooperation between university departments was concluded between my dispatch destination Aalborg University Arctic (AAU Arctic) and the research institution I am affiliated with, the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University (ARC-HU). That practically means that the foundations for future collaboration have been established (See Photo 5, 6). 

I had the experience of studying and doing research abroad even before this dispatch, but this time having the opportunity to stay abroad with the support of Japan’s flagship program for the study of the Arctic region made it easy for me to do field research as I was able to let my counterparts know clearly where I was coming from. Of course, the orientation before the trip to Denmark, the follow-up after my return and the seminar for the presentation of the results achieved, as well as the progress reports I had to submit every month during the dispatch period all created pressure, but were also deeply meaningful in the sense that thanks to them I was able to firmly advance my research without losing my bearings along the way. Also, I was able to fully focus on my research thanks to the extremely valuable opportunity I was given, and that was an experience that cannot be replaced by anything. I am therefore filled with gratitude that cannot be expressed in words. Those were wonderful ten months since, along with having the sufficient time to foster the buds of my new research ideas, I was also able to build a human network with Aalborg University, where a lot of fine researchers from the field of social sciences who specialize in the Arctic and Greenland are based.

Minori Takahashi (Hokkaido University, a member of theme 7)

Photo 1: the main street in Aalborg

Photo 2: Christmas service in the Greenlandic language at the Hans Egede Church, named so after an 18th century Christian missionary to Greenland

Photo 3: Aalborg University Arctic Research Group

Photo 4:at the Arctic Politics Research Seminar

Photo 5:Signing of MoU 1

Photo 6: Signing of MoU 2