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,” said Gjerde, pitching the attractions of a huge tract of Arctic land 2 ½ times bigger than Manhattan but considerably less noisy. It has a human population of zero.
But the sale of the property, across a frigid fjord from Longyearbyen, 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, was rebuffed last year in an attempt to buy a tract of frozen wilderness in Iceland and has turned to Norway. This summer he reached a preliminary deal to buy a large waterfront plot for about $4 million near the northern city of Tromso and, according to Norway’s state-owned broadcaster, is also looking at a much bigger, 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, and said 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 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.
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“No need to doubt that billionaire Huang Nubo is a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s authorities,” warned a commentary in Nordlys, northern Norway’s largest newspaper.
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.
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 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,” said Willy Ostreng, president of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research. Huang, he added, might be just another businessman interested in developing tourism, but, “We are talking about perceptions here. And the perception is that China wants a foothold in the Arctic.”
Hungry for energy, China has “openly declared its Arctic ambitions,” said Ostreng, noting 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 United States. It has also tried, without success, to get permission to build a large radar antenna on Svalbard.
China has also declared itself a “near Arctic state,” a big stretch as even its northernmost region lies more than 1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle. But, Ostreng said: “When you are a big country, you can claim to be whatever you want, and people believe you.”
The Arctic region, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, holds about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas, reserves that have been untouched because of the difficulty and high cost of their development.
Russia, which recently announced plans to invest $400 billion on extracting Arctic resources in the next 20 years, believes the region has even more promise, though these plans could be disrupted by Western sanctions imposed over Ukraine.
Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, indicated that Russia, despite its increasingly warm relations with China, was uneasy about Beijing’s push into the Arctic.
The land up for sale, owned by the descendants of a Norwegian shipper who acquired it in 1937, is the first property on Svalbard to go on the market since 1952, and it is the only privately held territory left. The rest is owned by the Norwegian state; a Norwegian state coal company, Store Norske; and a Russian state-owned coal company, the Arctic Coal Trust.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is unique,” said Gjerde, a friend of the family that owns the land and a board member of Austre Adventfjord, a company set up last year to manage the property.
Amid a rising clamor against any foreign sale, the government said in May that it would work to ensure the Svalbard property remained in Norwegian hands, but efforts to secure state control have yet to bear fruit.
Representatives for the owners say the state is welcome to submit a bid but must follow market rules. “We are in business. We will sell to the highest bidder,” said Arnstein Martin Skaare, a board member of the company managing the sale. “If Norway thinks this land is important for Norway, then it will buy it for a fair market price.”
What this price might be is a mystery, with estimates ranging from a few million dollars to more than a billion.
“You can’t put a price on something that is unique,” said Ostreng, the polar-research expert. The property’s immediate economic value, he said, is minimal, as its principal asset, coal, has only lost money for those mining elsewhere on Svalbard.
“But if you add in strategic value,” he said, “the price of this land is incalculable.”