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 signaling 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 neighborly 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 normalization 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.
The diplomatic challenge for Delhi lies in finding a way to let Thimphu move forward in its boundary negotiations with Beijing while securing India's defenses at the trijunction in the Chumbi valley.
Moving from the impudent Himalayan mountains to the emptiness of outer space, last Sunday saw rockets raining all across Asia. China made a big splash by announcing the successful test of a missile that could shoot down another in flight. Military analysts, however, say the test is about developing the capability to shoot down military satellites. China had demonstrated these technologies twice before, in 2007 and 2010, and this is part of its strategy to counter the American domination of outer space.
On Sunday, the United States too announced a missile defense test of its own. This coincidental testing is proof, if it was ever needed, that Beijing and Washington are now locked in a race to build space weapons. Sunday also saw Japan launch two spy satellites atop its powerful H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima space center. The satellites will boost Japan's capabilities for military surveillance of its Asian neighbors. Japan, which in the past had focused exclusively on peaceful uses of outer space, is now determined to build up its military space capabilities. The immediate provocation for Japan's military space program has been North Korea's testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. But Tokyo is conscious of the more significant long-term challenge from China's rapid military modernization and its impact on the regional balance of power.
It is not just the big three of East Asia—the United States, China, and Japan—that are expanding their space programs. If all goes well, South Korea will join the ranks of Asia's space powers on Wednesday.
The much anticipated launch of the Korean Space Launch Vehicle 1, built with Russian collaboration, comes after a series of failures. In 2010, the KSLV exploded two minutes after take-off. In 2009, the KSLV reached the targeted height but failed to properly release the satellite on board. For years, South Korea has watched from the sidelines North Korea's muscle-flexing in space. Washington, which could not stop North Korea's missile program, was restraining South Korea's space effort all these decades. As the fourth-largest economy in Asia, South Korea is now ready to take its rightful place in the global space hierarchy.