Is there more to the Greenland rumor than meets the eye? Donald Trump confirmed rumors yesterday that his administration had looked into the potential for purchasing Greenland, noting the strategic potential for such a transaction. However, Trump also told reporters that “it’s not number one on the front burner” on his vacation agenda:

President Trump confirmed Sunday that he has asked his administration to explore the possibility of buying Greenland, opining that “essentially, it’s a large real estate deal.”

“A lot of things can be done,” Trump told reporters in Morristown, N.J., after wrapping up a 10-day vacation at his private golf club. He noted that owning Greenland “would be nice” for the United States from a strategic perspective, but he cautioned: “It’s not number one on the burner, I can tell you that.”

Trump’s desire to buy Greenland, which is part of the kingdom of Denmark, was first reported last week by the Wall Street Journal. Two people with direct knowledge of the directive told The Washington Post that the president has mentioned the idea for weeks, and that aides are waiting for more direction before they decide how seriously they should look into it.

Thus it seems that this might have gone past the spitballing stage, but just how far past it? The public reaction from Denmark’s official channels — surprise and some skepticism — suggests that they got caught unaware by Trump’s interest. But is that also strategic on their part?

After all, not everyone is laughing about the idea. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told Margaret Brennan on CBS’ Face the Nation yesterday that the strategic interests might make a purchase worth the cost, although he’s not sure Trump’s serious about it:

MARGARET BRENNAN: Last time we spoke with you you just got back from a trip to the Arctic. You went to Greenland. I’m wondering what you think about this idea of acquiring it?

SEN. MANCHIN: Well Greenland’s a cold place, but it’s melting. You know we saw- we saw the effects of- of- of global climate changes. Changes are happening and the people up there understand that and they’re trying to adjust to it. And we have a very strategic base up there- a military base which we- we visited. And I understand that the strategic logic for that. In that part of the world in the Arctic opening up the way it is now. So that was a very interesting proposal that was thrown out, but we haven’t heard much about it. I’m on Armed Services. And we should be getting a secured briefing pretty soon on that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On purchasing Greenland?

SEN. MANCHIN: Well if that’s what- if that’s the intent. If it has any merit to it we’ll–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay.

SEN. MANCHIN: –we’ll hear about it. I haven’t heard that. I just heard basically what’s been reported on the news.

So what are the strategic interests? The Arctic has become a very active zone over the last decade, with Russia becoming particularly aggressive at staking out its turf. The US has its own entrée with Alaska, and now China has declared itself a “near-Arctic state” with its own designs on the polar region. Greenland’s already playing a role in Beijing’s plans, which makes a purchase an attractive option for pre-empting China.

The Diplomat reported on China’s Greenland ambitions in early 2018, noting that they have both strategic and economic interests in the territory. That worries Denmark as well as the US now that Greenland has become semi-autonomous:

Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and the centerpiece for Danish interests in the Arctic. In 2009 the island achieved “self-rule,” meaning that most governmental portfolios are under Greenlandic jurisdiction save for defense and foreign affairs. China’s Greenlandic engagement has sparked concerns in Copenhagen, and may factor into the looming question of whether Greenland opts for full independence in the coming years.

Chinese firms have sought to invest in Greenland’s emerging mineral wealth, which is becoming more readily accessible due to climate change. The most visible example is the rare earth elements, uranium, and zinc mining under development at Kvanefjeld by Australian firm Greenland Minerals and Energy, in cooperation with China’s Shenghe Resources. In Greenland’s far north, a zinc mine is planned at Citronen Fjord which would be overseen by Perth-based Ironbark, which signed a memorandum of understanding with China Nonferrous Metal to assist with that project’s development. As well, General Nice, a Hong Kong-based company, currently holds the rights to a potential iron mine at Isua in western Greenland. The same company ran afoul of the Danish government when it attempted to purchase an abandoned U.S.-built naval facility at Grønnedal, only to be blocked by Copenhagen. According to reports revealed in April 2017, there were concerns the sale might offend the United States, which still operates a military base at Thule in northern Greenland.

There has been a growing demand in China for adventure and ecotourism, with the Arctic (and Antarctica) becoming more popular as alternative destinations, and opportunities have appeared for Chinese firms seeking to develop Greenland’s nascent tourism industry. In next-door Iceland, Chinese visitors arriving at the country’s main airport at Keflavik jumped from about 9500 to 86,000 between 2007 and 2017, and there is a debate in Nuuk about potentially tapping into the overall growing demand for Arctic tourism, including from Asia.

Chinese firms are being considered for the expansion of three airports in Greenland, which could accommodate expanded tourist traffic, a development which is reportedly worrying Danish authorities. Beijing is also seeking to construct a scientific research base in Greenland, with these plans being outlined by Chinese researchers at the October 2017 Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík. The exact location of the facilities has yet to be determined, (likely in western or northern Greenland), but if the project does go forward, it would be China’s second such station in the Arctic. Beijing opened its Yellow River station on Svalbard in 2004, and there is also a joint Sino-Icelandic facility for the study of auroras under construction in northern Iceland.

China’s military would be very tightly connected to all of these economic interests, especially the three airports they planned to build. Denmark intervened to stop those projects later in 2018, but the risk remains that Greenland’s autonomy might provide China with a toehold over Europe that could quickly turn military as well as economic. The semi-autonomous government in Nuuk expressed surprise that the Danes saw multiple Chinese runways pointed at Denmark and the rest of Europe as a potential threat, in what should have been 2018’s Captain Louis Renault of the Year Award winner.

That turned out to be a close-run issue, and it’s still not entirely clear whether Nuuk will keep China out. They have refused to join the EU despite Denmark’s membership, which means that they set their own terms on issues like sanctions on Russia over Crimea and other issues. Having granted autonomy to Greenland, Copenhagen has lots of reasons for remorse and perhaps some for a sale to the US that would eliminate security concerns and the headaches now associated with Greenland.

In the meantime, Trump’s expressed interest in an outright sale also operates conveniently for Denmark. They can use that threat to keep Nuuk in line, and to also remind them that the US views Greenland strategically. Playing footsie with China and Russia, especially with their Arctic ambitions ramping up, is a very dangerous game for Nuuk. If nothing else, they’ve been warned.