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.
“The proposed 2,200-metre runway at the greenfield airport can handle jet aircraft that can provide direct flight services to metro cities. On demand, flight services can also be extended to international destinations,” announced India’s junior minister for civil aviation, Jayant Sinha, adding that it will have better facilities than Pakyong airport.