China has labelled Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's comments about Beijing's growing assertiveness "misguided accusations" and warned they won't help the two countries keep their relationship on "the right track".
In a statement on Thursday night, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand said representatives had taken note of Ardern's remarks at the NATO leaders' summit in Madrid, Spain.
Ardern made "misguided accusations against China" in her speech, the spokesperson said.
In particular, the Chinese Embassy took issue with Ardern saying that "China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms".
"That allegation is wrong and thus regrettable. It is obvious that such comment is not helpful for deepening mutual trust between the two countries, or for the efforts made by the two countries to keep our bilateral relations on the right track."
New Zealand was invited to the summit as one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) "partners across the globe". Other non-members to attend included Australia, South Korea and Japan, part of NATO attempts to strengthen its relationship with the Indo-Pacific.
China was a key focus of the summit, with NATO members declaring in a strategic document that its "coercive policies challenge our interests, security and value".
In her speech, which focused on challenges to the international rules-based system globally but also in the Pacific, Ardern said New Zealand's stance was clear.
"We must stand firm on the rules-based order, call for diplomatic engagement and speak out against human rights abuses at all times when and where we see them. But we also must resist the temptation to simplify the increasingly complex world in which we live."
China has made a renewed push for influence in the Pacific this year, firstly signing a security cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands that sparked fears a Chinese naval base could be built in the region, before trying to secure a region-wide deal with Pacific nations in May.
That was ultimately unsuccessful, but it has been reported that China is wanting another meeting with the region's foreign ministers on the same day local leaders gather for the Pacific Island Forum in July.
New Zealand opposed the Solomons deal on the basis that it believes Pacific nations should be looking for support from within its own region.
While the Solomons have told the New Zealand Government that it doesn't intend to allow the construction of a naval base, Ardern has on several occasions reiterated that New Zealand wouldn't support the region being militarised.
She did so again at the NATO event.
"We must use diplomacy at every opportunity, until it has proven to fail. We must strengthen the resilience of the Indo-Pacific region through relationships and economic architecture rather than militarisation."
The Chinese Embassy spokesperson said its position towards the Pacific is "consistent and clear" and about deepening relationships to enhance countries' development capacity and ability to respond to climate change.
"In that process, China is ready to work together with all relevant parties sharing this goal. If there is indeed an escalation of tension in the Pacific, it cannot have been caused by China's cooperation with its island partners to advance sustainable development.
"Such cooperation has nothing to do with the 'militaris ation' of the region. If militaris ation does exist in the South Pacific, it is clear to all who and what is fueling such tensions."
China is New Zealand's largest trading partner with two-way trade worth in excess of $33 billion. The two countries celebrated 50 years of diplomatic ties this year, with the Chinese Embassy spokesperson saying the relationship has "made tremendous progress and brought tangible benefits" to both.
"The achievements have not come out of nowhere or as a matter of course, and should be cherished and nurtured carefully by both sides," it said.
China wants to continue to work with New Zealand and seek "common ground while shelving differences".
The New Zealand Government has repeatedly said the two countries have a "mature" relationship, with Ardern saying that comments she makes in private about China are consistent with those she makes in public.
Despite the important trading ties, New Zealand has accused China of human rights abuses, including in Xinjiang, and condemned anti-democratic behaviour in Hong Kong. It's also raised concern about Beijing's behaviour towards the South China Sea.
Ardern's comments about China on the NATO stage come amid criticism of the North Atlantic grouping by Beijing. It said this week that NATO "sowed the seeds of conflict" in Europe ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine by expanding eastwards.
It opposes NATO having any role in the Pacific, saying that risked bringing conflict to the region. A state media article also warned New Zealand not to get close to the military alliance or risk damage to the Chinese-New Zealand relationship.
The embassy spokesperson said it was aware of Ardern's comments that New Zealand remains committed to an independent foreign policy and doesn't seek to expand military alliances. China is against taking sides or forcing others to take sides, the statement said.