A curious thing happened in Tokyo last week. United States Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns gave a speech there saying that the US backed a limited expansion of the United Nations Security Council from 15 to 20 members.

Only "two or so" of the five new seats should be permanent members with full veto rights, however - and Japan should be one.

Now, here's the funny thing. How did it happen that they mulled all this over at the State Department, and decided there must be only two new permanent members, and agreed Japan should be one - then dropped the subject? Maybe it was too nice out and they all decided to go golfing.

Call me cynical, but I think they know who they want the other permanent member to be. They just want something in return before they say so.

India should have had a permanent seat on the Security Council from the start, but the United Nations was set up in 1945 and India didn't get its independence from Britain until 1947. For 58 years the second-most populous country has been frozen out of the world's highest council.

Of course it must be India - but in that case, why not say so? Is it possible that the Bush Administration wants something from India? Yes, it does. It wants India to become the South Asian anchor of its strategy for "containing" China militarily.

The neo-conservatives who control defence and foreign policy under President Bush were demanding a huge rise in US military spending even before September 11 "to cope with the rise of China to great-power status". They want to encircle China with a ring of American allies in a reprise of the US containment strategy against the Soviet Union in the 50s and 60s.

In this strategy India is the main prize, and the Bush Administration is trying to woo New Delhi into a close military and strategic relationship. It is offering India first-line F-16 fighters now, and access to the next generation of US combat aircraft when it becomes available. It is offering Patriot and Arrow missiles, access to American civil nuclear technology, and high-tech co-operation in the domain of satellites and launch vehicles. Above all, it is offering India the leading role in its emerging Asian alliance structure.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Government is clearly nervous about this, but also flattered. As his media spokesman Sanjaya Baru put it: "India is an ancient civilisation and has a mind of its own, but our views are moving in parallel with the US and Anglo-Saxon world."

Although no date has yet been officially confirmed, President Bush has several times said he hopes to visit India before the end of this year.

There are two main obstacles to this strategic match. One is the fact (which even bothers members of Manmohan Singh's Cabinet) that this sort of alliance would be a betrayal of everything India has stood for since independence, and that it might be preferable not to spend the first half of the 21st century mired in a military confrontation with India's giant neighbour across the Himalayas.

The other is the Indian Communists, who hold almost 70 seats in the Lok Sabha (parliament), crucial to the survival of Singh's minority coalition Government. They are dead set against what would amount to a military alliance with the US (though it would never be called that), and so Singh's Government wavers, unsure which way to jump. Meanwhile, China has started making counter-offers on free trade, the settlement of old border disputes and the like.

So the United States has produced another carrot: a permanent seat for India on the Security Council. Except that Washington will only throw its weight behind the idea publicly if and when India signs up for the containment strategy.

It is a dangerous and needless strategy that will alarm China and lead to prolonged military confrontation in Asia. Indians should not be seduced by it. China is not their enemy. For that matter, it is not America's enemy, either.