NEW DELHI: Bhutan has always been India's most important neighbour. But for the first time, India will be sending a China expert as the next ambassador to Thimphu. Gautam Bambawale, joint secretary East Asia and currently South Block's best known "China hand", is slated to take over from V P Haran from August 1.
Bambawale's name is yet to be announced, though the Bhutan government has already accepted his appointment. The decision to send Bambawale is significant. China is looming large in Bhutan's strategic sights — both on its borders and on the Tibet issue. While India now has some experience in dealing with China, Bhutan is very small and could be vulnerable to Chinese expansionism. Bambawale's expertise in dealing with China, especially during some tough times, may help him there.
Meanwhile, India and China are getting ready to hold their next round of strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing next week, where Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia will lead the Indian delegation. It will be the last such dialogue before the UPA government calls it quits. The issues on the table, however, will remain beyond the life of any government — market access for Indian companies including in the service sector and pharma, removal of non-tariff barriers etc. India is also trying to attract Chinese investment in the infrastructure sector.
India and China are also close to a boundary agreement, which will include the border with Bhutan, particularly the sensitive Chumbi Valley area. Highly placed sources said the two special representatives have worked out the minutiae of a future agreement but it needs political will on either side to actually take a call on exchange of territory. China's President Xi Jinping is expected to make his first visit to India later this year as China wants to celebrate 60 years of the Panchsheel. It will be his first meeting with a new government in India.
Bambawale has been closely associated with the boundary agreement, including leading the Indian side on the working mechanism. He was the lead negotiator for the border defence cooperation agreement (BDCA) with China in the months after the Depsang incursion created a major flutter between the two Asian giants. China and India are now working on a code of conduct for troops on the border, updating the operating procedures put in place in 2005.