Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Prospect of a rare Arctic land sale stirs concerns in Norway

By Andrew Higgens  /  NY Times News Service, Longyearbyen, Norway

For anyone in the market for a majestic waterfront property with easy access to the North Pole, Ole Einar Gjerde has a deal.

“We will throw in the polar bears for free,” Gjerde said, pitching the attractions of a huge tract of Arctic land two-and-a-half times bigger than Manhattan, but considerably less noisy. It has a human population of zero.

However, the sale of the property, across a frigid fjord from Longyearbyen, the capital of Norway’s northernmost territory, has kicked up a noisy storm fed by alarm over the Arctic ambitions of a Chinese real-estate tycoon with deep pockets, a yen for ice and a murky past working for the Chinese Communist Party.

The tycoon, Huang Nubo (黃怒波), was rebuffed last year in an attempt to buy a tract of frozen wilderness in Iceland and has turned his attentions to Norway.

This summer he reached a preliminary deal to buy a large waterfront plot for about US$4 million near the northern city of Tromso and, according to Norway’s state-owned broadcaster, is also eyeing a much bigger and even more northerly property on Spitsbergen, the main island in the Svalbard archipelago.

Huang’s company, Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group, denied reports in the Norwegian news media that it wants to buy land in the high Arctic, saying it is focusing instead on plans for a luxury resort complex in Lyngen, a mountainous area on the Norwegian mainland near Tromso.

That project, though centered on land much farther south than Svalbard, still puts Huang’s company inside the Arctic Circle and has set off a heated debate about his intentions.

“No need to doubt that billionaire Huang Nubo is a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s authorities,” said a commentary in northern Norway’s largest newspaper, Nordlys.

Ola Giaever, the seller of the property near Tromso, said he had “100 percent confidence” that Huang was a straight-up businessman with no hidden agenda.

“This is a business deal. Nothing else is going on,” Giaever said in a telephone interview.

However, such assurances have done little to calm a frenzy of speculation about China seeking a permanent foothold in the Arctic, a region of growing geopolitical and economic significance as global warming opens new and cheaper shipping routes from Asia and also expands the prospects for exploiting the Arctic’s abundant natural resources.

“For anyone interested in geopolitics, this is the region to follow in years to come,” Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research president Willy Ostreng said.

Huang, he added, “might be just another smiling businessman” genuinely interested in simply developing tourism, but “we are talking about perceptions here.”

“And the perception is that China wants a foothold in the Arctic,” he said.

Hungry for energy, China has “openly declared its Arctic ambitions,” Ostreng said, adding that Beijing had invested in an icebreaker, the Snow Dragon; sent scientists to Svalbard to join teams of international researchers; and successfully lobbied to become an observer at the Arctic Council, a grouping of nations with Arctic land, including Norway, Russia and the US.

It has also tried, so far without success, to get permission to build a large radar antenna on Svalbard.

China has even declared itself a “near Arctic state,” a big stretch as even its northernmost region lies more than 1,600km from the Arctic Circle.

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