Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is warning against "pigeonholing" China as being aligned with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
China and Russia have grown closer in recent months, evident by a joint statement of cooperation in February signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
China has so far refused to condemn Russia's attack on Ukraine, and has fuelled concerns in the Pacific by signing a controversial security pact with the Solomon Islands.
Speaking in Japan, the second destination after Singapore of her first overseas trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ardern called for de-escalation and warned against painting China - our largest trading partner - as siding with Russia.
"It is Russia that we should be focussing on here," she told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.
"We have seen statements from China articulating their support for territorial integrity and the sovereignty of the nation of Ukraine and so that in my mind is an acknowledgement of the threat that this war has posed against them and their territorial integrity.
"What you'll continue to see us encourage is diplomacy, dialogue, and de-escalation. We are doing everything we can to support those efforts without actions directly with Ukraine and against Russia.
"We also support wider de-escalation. We are all worse off if there is a situation where China is pigeonholed into a position where they are seen to be only aligned with Russia. Let's continue the dialogue and make sure we don't have that situation."
Ardern is visiting Singapore and Japan, New Zealand's fourth and fifth largest trading partners, respectively, to let them know we're open for business. But it's also a chance for Ardern to discuss regional strategic issues.
Her comments came a week after the NATO military alliance of 30 countries across Europe and North America agreed to "step up" and help New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea combat "China's growing influence".
"Not just China," Ardern said on Thursday, when asked what regional strategic issues she would discuss with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. She said they would talk about the general "disruption we are seeing currently to our international rules-based order".
"We, in many ways, have common values with Japan. I know that they are as disturbed as we are about what is happening in Ukraine and you've seen a very strong response from Japan to that action. So, no doubt we'll discuss that, what it means for the world, and what it means for our region.
"When it comes to relationships with China, each country will have its own experience. But what we see shared in many examples is that we have seen a growing assertiveness in our region and if we're seeing that in our region we'll be seeing it in a number of other areas, and certainly I know Japan will be reflecting that and has spoken about that."
Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert in Chinese politics who wrote the controversial paper Magic Weapons that highlighted China's "expanded foreign influence activities" in the era of President Xi, told Newshub China's pact with the Solomon Islands is a "game-changer".
"If a hostile power has a base on these islands, they could blockade our wider Pacific seas as Japan attempted to do in World War 2," Brady told Newshub Live at 8pm.
"They could cut us off from military support from the United States or other countries who we partner with. They could also prevent New Zealand and Australia from going up into Asia or the Indo-Pacific region to defend and work with other partners."
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has defended the agreement, saying its aim is to diversify the nation's security ties "to improve the quality of lives" and "address soft and hard security threats facing the country."
"I ask all our neighbours' friends and partners to respect the sovereign interests of the Solomon Islands on the assurance that the decision will not adversely impact or undermine the peace and harmony of our region," Sogavare said.
Ardern said on Thursday she would prefer the Solomon Islands to discuss the issue with the Pacific Islands Forum.
"We've made very clear our recognition of the Solomon Islands' sovereignty but to ask them to at least allow the Pacific Island Forum to come together and discuss the issue together as a whole."
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is equally concerned about the deal.
"There is a lot of influence going on in the Pacific and there is a lot of pressure being placed on other Pacific countries around our region and what they need to understand is that I am going to work with them."