Australia’s decision to sign a new security alliance with the United States and Britain took China by surprise. The three-way Aukus pact, aimed at deterring China, is potentially a game changer in the Indo-Pacific because it allows Canberra to become the first country without nuclear weapons to acquire nuclear-propelled submarine technology . Although Australia’s nuclear submarine fleet may not be operational until about 2040, the deal has already raised fears of an intensifying nuclear arms race in the region and attracted a barrage of criticism from Beijing. Just hours after the deal was made public two weeks ago, nationalist tabloid Global Times cited an unnamed “senior Chinese military expert” as warning the agreement could make Australia “a potential target for a nuclear strike”. “Aukus is putting Australia in danger,” the expert was quoted as saying, because “Beijing and Moscow won’t treat Canberra as ‘an innocent non-nuclear power’, but ‘a US ally that could be armed with nuclear weapons at any time’.” In an interview with the Australian broadcaster ABC last week, Victor Gao, best known as late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s English interpreter, also went ballistic at the submarine deal, calling it “a gross violation of international law” with “profound consequences”. “Armed with nuclear submarines, Australia itself will be a target for possible nuclear attacks in the future,” Gao, a vice-president of the Centre for China and Globalisation told the ABC’s China Tonight . “Do you really want to be a target in a possible nuclear war or do you want to be free from nuclear menace?” Nuclear threats and blackmail are nothing new in geopolitics, with China on the receiving end of such naked power politics during the Cold War. Such threats, largely aimed at a domestic audience and to deter weak states, are often used by countries like Russia and North Korea, albeit ineffectively. In the case of Australia, such nuclear rhetoric by Chinese media and officials is deeply inappropriate and counterproductive. To be fair, Aukus is deeply unsettling for China and has plunged the already strained relations with Australia to a new low. By placing a risky, long-term bet on America’s supremacy and reliability, Australia has removed the last shred of ambiguity in where it sees its future. But Beijing will also need to do some serious soul-searching to work out how it lost Australia and how it can manage their differences. Australian Aukus subs: are China’s fears of a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific founded? It is far too early to draw a conclusive picture of how Aukus tilts the balance of the US-China equilibrium or what the geopolitical landscape may look like in 20 years’ time. But one thing seems clear – although Beijing may think it has an upper hand in its economic cold war against Canberra, China simply cannot afford to give up on Australia in the midst of its long game with the US. Despite mutual distrust and hostility, the absence of high-level official exchanges since 2018 and Australia’s growing asymmetrical trade with China, Canberra’s strategic significance in Beijing’s global ambitions, including the Belt and Road Initiative , its top foreign policy and investment scheme, cannot be overstated. More importantly, Beijing’s rhetorical overdrive will send chilling messages to small and middle powers in the region caught in the US-China feud, pushing them further into Washington’s orbit. In a sense, the superpower rivalry is essentially about winning friends while not creating enemies, making middle powers, such as Australia, Japan, Canada and South Korea, more important than ever in shaping the future world order. Aukus security pact likely to spur China into boosting anti-submarine warfare capacity As former ambassador to Australia Fu Ying indicated a year ago, Beijing needs to come to terms with the reality that it does not have many friends and allies to count on in the event of the US-China confrontation. “If China and the US veer irreversibly into a conflict, it will be very difficult for a lot of countries, in the absence of China’s interests and security guarantees, to choose to support China even if they may not actively side with the US,” she said.