AS CHINA grows in economic power and military might, other Asian players are looking to India as a likely counterweight. Their thinking is that with its population set to overtake China’s in the next decade and its economy growing faster, India will be uniquely equipped to stand up to the region’s potential bully. So it is that big powers such as America and Japan, along with smaller ones such as Australia, Singapore and France (which has island territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans) have with growing urgency courted India as an ally. Yet much as it sympathises with fellow democracies and harbours its own deep concerns about China, India keeps brushing them off. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has instead worked hard to cultivate personal ties with President Xi Jinping; in late April the two held an informal two-day summit in Wuhan (pictured above). India’s biggest arms-supplier is Russia, an increasingly close ally of China. Some in Delhi even counsel shunning the West and seeking a similar alliance with neighbours to the north. Why is India so aloof?

To countries worried by the rise of China, the construction of a containing ring of military allies looks sensible. Individually, small Asian countries are no match for the Chinese dragon; allied with bigger powers, they might be. An obvious missing piece of the ring, just now, is India. This seems strange. India has plenty of reasons to be wary of China. The two fought a brief border war in 1962; each still claims territories the other holds, and this remains a cause of periodic scuffling. China props up India’s nuclear-armed rival Pakistan with generous doses of arms and money; it has made increasingly bold inroads in smaller countries that India views as part of its own traditional sphere of influence, such as the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Another annoyance is that China also runs a big and growing trade surplus with India. Partly in response to all this, India has warmed to America in recent years, signing small-scale military co-operation agreements and contracts for some American arms. It also sustains cordial military ties with regional democracies that would love a deeper strategic engagement. But even so India has consistently shied from formalising such relationships into anything looking like an alliance.

Frustrated Western suitors tend to interpret such prevarication as a lack of political will. But Indian dithering is less hapless than it may seem. Since its birth as a nation in 1947 India has consistently sought—though not always convincingly achieved—a full degree of strategic autonomy. During the cold war it was far enough from the important theatres of Soviet-American rivalry to avoid taking sides. As Indian leaders then dabbled with socialism, explored friendships with other post-colonial states and found America pumping arms into Pakistan as a reward for its ruling generals’ “anti-Communism”, they grew disillusioned with the West. India was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement that sought to form a third pole to East-West rivalries. It abhorred America’s involvement in Vietnam, and in 1971 was shocked by the Nixon administration’s fierce opposition to independence for Bangladesh. Later, India opposed brash American policies such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It also resented being punished for developing nuclear weapons even as China, which tested its atom bomb just ten years before India, was welcomed into the nuclear club. Only in the past decade has America distanced itself from Pakistan, and tried more actively to woo India.

So, while India is indeed wary of China, it also bears a legacy of mistrust towards America. India’s establishment instinctively prefers the West, but its strategic thinkers caution that the country should avoid entangling alliances. Vast oceans separate countries such as America and Australia from China, they note, but with India it shares a long land border. China’s economy is now five times India’s; rather risky to signal to such a neighbour that India favours a “containment” strategy. Besides, India has a strong sense of itself as an emerging superpower. Until now, in the modern world, an underperforming economy has held it back from playing a bigger role. Given time and patience, though, India itself will become a powerful pole in a multipolar world.