The week-long visit to India by the king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Wangchuck, has been marked by a reaffirmation of mutual goodwill and a shared commitment to tighten the bonds of friendship. Behind closed doors though, the future of Bhutan's relationship with China must have figured right on top of the bilateral agenda. Right now, Bhutan is the only country in the subcontinent that does not have diplomatic ties with China.
In recent years, Thimphu has been signalling its desire to end this political anomaly. In an important advance last summer, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met his Bhutanese counterpart, Jigme Yoser Thinley, on the margins of an international conference in Brazil. The two leaders reportedly agreed to establish diplomatic relations in the near future. But there is a widespread perception that Delhi is wary of normal neighbourly ties between Thimphu and Beijing. It is in India's interest to dispel this impression at the earliest.
Changes in Bhutan's internal and external orientation have long suggested that India can no longer treat the Himalayan kingdom as a protectorate. Delhi understood this when it renegotiated the 1949 treaty of friendship with Thimphu. The new treaty, signed in 2007, put the relationship on a footing of mutual respect and equality. The democratic transition at home, Thimphu's search for a larger international profile and the intensifying overtures from Beijing make the warming of Sino-Bhutanese ties inevitable.
Delhi must gracefully come to terms with this reality. Supporting the normalisation of relations between Bhutan and China might be a good gesture on Delhi's part as Thimphu tries to win a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. A lot trickier, of course, is the prospect of an early boundary settlement between Bhutan and China. Beijing is reportedly offering an attractive deal to Thimphu. The problem for India is that such a settlement will move the Sino-Bhutanese border southwards, closer to India, in the strategically sensitive Chumbi valley.
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