Beijing is denouncing the U.S. government’s new “AUKUS” technology-sharing working group with the U.K. and Australia as a threat to peace in the Indo-Pacific region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Thursday slammed the grouping as a reflection of “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception” that "intensified" a regional arms race and harmed international non-proliferation efforts.

That rhetoric — including Zhao’s reference to “cliques” designed to target “third party” countries — reflects the Chinese government’s recognition that the U.S. has been able to rally allies in the Indo-Pacific to counter Beijing’s increasingly aggressive moves in the region. The AUKUS deal makes no explicit reference to China, but two U.S. officials noted that the subtext of the announcement is that this is another move by Western allies to push back on China’s rise in the military and technology arenas. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday responded to questions about the AUKUS agreement’s focus on China by insisting that it “is not about any one country,” adding that “we do not seek conflict [with China].”

Zhao hinted that the Chinese government may accuse Australia of violating its commitment under the Treaty of Rarotonga, which includes prohibitions on the production, possession or acquisition of nuclear weapons.

That tactic would ignore or misconstrue the fact that the AUKUS deal includes equipping Australia with technology for nuclear propulsion, not nuclear weapons. Both President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasized that Australia doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon. The three countries will undertake discussions over the next 18 months to figure out how best to deliver the technology, which the U.S. traditionally has only shared with the U.K.

But the Chinese state media platform Global Times took a more extreme position on Australia’s membership in the AUKUS grouping. Citing unnamed “military experts,” the Global Times warned that Australia’s deployment of nuclear-powered submarines will “potentially make Australia a target of a nuclear strike if a nuclear war breaks out, even when Washington said it won’t arm Canberra with nuclear weapons, because it’s easy for the U.S. to equip Australia with nuclear weapons and submarine-launched ballistic missiles when Australia has the submarines.”

That threat reflects the perception among elements of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army that the U.S. wants to use its Indo-Pacific relationships to militarily encircle China.

Those sensitivities were already heightened on Monday when the White House announced that the leaders of "the Quad" — the U.S., India, Australia and Japan — will meet in person on Sept. 28. The spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C., Liu Pengyu, implicitly referenced such concerns in an emailed statement to POLITICO on Thursday that warned against the creation of “exclusionary blocs” bound by “ideological prejudice.”

The prospect of Australia deploying long-range nuclear-powered submarines will inevitably intensify concerns about military miscalculations in the region that could lead to potential conflict.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned last month about “worsening frictions with China” in the South China Sea and said that a U.S-China military conflict there “would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce.” The sources of those frictions include China’s increasingly aggressive stance toward the self-governing island of Taiwan and China’s refusal to comply with a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that rejected China’s claims of sovereignty over vast swaths of the South China Sea.

Multiple former senior U.S. military personnel have told POLITICO that the potential for an unintended U.S.-China conflict is growing due to bilateral military crisis communications systems that remain highly unreliable. They warn that lack of regular communication could fuel a U.S.-China military confrontation at a time of heightening bilateral tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The foreign ministry’s Zhao also warned of such negative unintended consequences. Those countries that don’t “do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development … will only end up shooting themselves in the foot,” Zhao said.

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