Sikkim's Pakyong airport is now regarded as one of the most beautiful airports in the world

The Pakyong airport in the northeastern state provides strategic advantage in the region – but also underlines the Modi administration’s desire to cement its bond with the rest of the country

by Vasudevan Sridharan

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently inaugurated the country’s 100th operational airport in the northeastern state of Sikkim, nestled in the Himalayan range, he took pains to mention what an engineering marvel it was. What he commented on more obliquely, however, was the strategic advantage the Pakyong airport provides, given Sikkim’s proximity to the Chinese border and his administration’s desire to cement the state’s bond with the rest of the country.

“Work is progressing at a high pace to strengthen both infrastructural and emotional connectivity to Sikkim and [India’s] northeast,” said Modi, who has placed a special focus on India’s north-eastern states to prevent them from slipping out of political control.

Though Modi did not openly mention China in his inaugural address, the premier peppered his remarks with the importance of boosting connectivity with Sikkim. The state, which is on the Chinese border, became part of India in 1975 through a referendum. Though China rejected the referendum’s outcome at the time, it notably scaled down its territorial claims over Sikkim in the mid-2000s.

The stated purpose of the Pakyong airport, built at a cost of US$68.7 million, is to boost tourism, give impetus to trade and kick-start fresh economic activity in the region – but it is also firmly aligned with New Delhi’s aim of bolstering the federal government’s grip on the state. The Modi administration has also been focusing on improving infrastructure ventures in areas bordering China as a broader policy initiative.

“This will offer a symbolic message to China that India’s neighbouring states are getting empowered and developed. Any developments in Sikkim will undoubtedly pass a message to China,” said Dr Jagannath Panda, a research fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses think tank and an expert on East Asia region.

“The Pakyong airport is for civilian use and aims to connect Sikkim and northeast India better with the rest of India. Yet, having an airport in Sikkim will certainly provide a strategic advantage,” he added.

With the absence of any rail link, landlocked Sikkim, which also shares borders with Nepal and Bhutan, is heavily dependent on road transport. Unveiled as a civilian installation, the Pakyong airfield is perched 1,400 metres (4,500ft) above sea level with the 1.7km-long runway offering a spectacular view of the picturesque Himalayan landscape.

Approval for the 400-hectare (990-acre) facility officially was given in 2008. While the project initially encountered several delays due to inhospitable terrain, those bottlenecks were removed in recent years as its political value became apparent.

Sitting atop an artificial plateau and supported by a 71-metre-high wall in a landslide-prone zone, engineers had to shave off more than 200,000 square metres of hills to level the ground for the greenfield airport. Pakyong can handle up to 500,000 passengers a year, and it is one of the five highest airports in India. The airport can simultaneously host two ATR 72 twin-engined short-haul planes.

Domestic flights are to begin operations this month, while international airlines are set to use Pakyong from the start of 2019. Before the facility was built, Sikkim’s nearest airport was in Bagdogra in the neighbouring state of West Bengal – one that takes a bone-shaking five-hour ride through the mountains to reach.

For decades, the Himalayan region has witnessed territorial disputes. As late as 2017, Indian and Chinese forces were engaged in a lengthy stand-off centred on Doklam – a disputed tri-junction between India’s ally Bhutan and China – which is bordering Sikkim. Against this backdrop, the new airport gained additional significance.

“Developing the state was a dominant consideration,” said Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a senior fellow at the policy think tank Observer Research Foundation. “Of late, under India’s security policy substantial emphasis is given on developing infrastructure at the bordering region. Considering Sikkim’s proximity to China, its strategic importance cannot be overlooked.”

Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, has a similar view. “Any airport that is on the Himalayan range obviously has a strategic angle to it. Any airfield in the [northeast] region is for dual use, the airport doesn’t have to be declared as that initially or need a military presence to become that,” he said.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) test-landed a Dornier 228 aircraft in March to check if the airport would be suitable for its operations. While it is still unclear if the airport can handle fighter jets, Pakyong airport can operate military transport aircraft in case of a crisis or emergency.

The IAF and the Airports Authority of India did not respond to requests for comment.

While some say the Pakyong airport could give India a slim strategic edge over China, it may not be a game-changer.

“We must be clear that while technology with dual-use potential [military and civilian] is always attractive, similarly, infrastructure with both commercial and security benefits is always a force multiplier. Having said that, Pakyong is primarily a value addition in a state that is emerging as one of India’s fastest growing states in terms of tourism and accessibility for growth,” former IAF Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam said.

Within days of the airport’s inauguration, the civil aviation ministry announced that the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China does not recognise as India’s territory, will get its third airport at a place called Hollongi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will begin his two-day visit to India today, with agreements on defence, trade, and space technology on the agenda, along with discussions over the military transition in Afghanistan. But the most significant outcome of the summit is expected to be India’s purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile system from Russia.

In 2016, the countries signed an agreement allowing India to purchase five S-400 systems for US$5.8 billion. The deal has raised eyebrows in the United States, which has urged India not to make the purchase.

America believes the S-400 could access sensitive military technology. Last July, the US Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which empowers the president to impose sanctions on countries that procure defence equipment from certain companies in Russia, Iran and North Korea. Among them is the Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defence Corporation – the Russian manufacturer of the S-400.

However, a later amendment to the act allows the president to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis. India argued for a waiver in July and again in September on three planks: that it would not use weapons against the US, that the absence of the S-400 would adversely affect its military abilities, and that it was significantly reducing its dependence on Russian military hardware, according to a report in The Hindu newspaper.

“The S-400 missile deal is a message from India to the United States that the COMCASA and other military agreements do not mean it will abandon Russia – one of its oldest allies,” said Suhasini Haidar, The Hindu’s diplomatic affairs editor, referring to the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement the US and India signed last month, which allows the transfer of sensitive encrypted defence technology between them.

Putin’s visit to India will be watched closely not just by Washington, but probably also by Beijing. His trip comes at a time when Russia and China are strengthening ties with each other. In September, Russia conducted Vostok 18, its largest military exercise since the end of the cold war, on its eastern border. It also invited China and Mongolia to participate in the war games.

In the first quarter of 2018, trade volume between India and China increased by 30 per cent. The relationship between the two countries rests on a common agenda – to reduce America’s influence as a global power. The US recognises this and, to cement its position in the global arena, is boosting ties with India.

“India then becomes a bit of collateral damage because one of the main planks of the Indo-Russian relationship was a mutual distrust of China,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at The Observer Research Foundation, a New-Delhi based think tank. “There will be an impact on the Indo-Russian relationship not only because of the growing closeness between Russia and China but also because of the Indo-US relationship.”

In March, the US formally changed the name of its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, with defence secretary James Mattis stressing that this was in keeping with the country’s strategic focus spanning both the Pacific and Indian Oceans – “from Hollywood to Bollywood”.

“China isn’t particularly excited at the change of nomenclature because it gives greater prominence to India,” said Ashok Sajjanhar, president of the Institute of Global Studies and a former Indian diplomat.

Russia too has favoured the use of the term Asia-Pacific over a moniker that Unnikrishnan calls a “young concept” and “an attempt to manage China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific seas” at the geopolitical level.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statements on the Indo-Pacific region, however, seem to indicate India would not like to be seen as strategically aligned with a particular group or country. “The 10 countries of Southeast Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense,” he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in June this year. “Inclusiveness, openness and Asean centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific.”

This policy of equidistance isn’t just limited to China and Russia. “In West Asia, we have good relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran,” Sajjanhar added. “So in a multipolar world, we have to follow a policy of multi-alignment rather than a policy of non-alignment.”

Modi’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, with Putin in Sochi, India’s participation in the 2+2 dialogue with the US, and its S-400 defence systems deal with Russia are emblematic of this multipolarity.

India, however, is relying on the depth of its relationship with Russia to give it the strategic space to negotiate with other world powers in the long run. Military ties between the two countries date back to the mid-1960s, when the erstwhile Soviet Union supplied MiG 21 helicopters to India, soon after the 1962 Sino-Indian war.