Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rejects China's criticism of her, says legacy of Ukraine war can't be more nuclear weapons

The Prime Minister denies she has been "demonising" China in the Asia-Pacific, saying New Zealand treats Beijing's presence in the region the same as anyone else's.

Appearing on Australia's The Project on Tuesday night, Jacinda Ardern was asked if she agreed with Chinese state media's claim in June that New Zealand was "smearing and demonising" China's cooperation with Pacific Island nations.

"Not at all," the Prime Minister replied. "One of the points that I have been making is China has been present in the Pacific for a long time…They have been there as often aid and development partners for a number of years."

Ardern's said that in a number of recent speeches and media interviews, including at the think tank Chatham House in the United Kingdom over the weekend. It would be wrong, Ardern said on Saturday, for New Zealand to "call out" China for being present in the Pacific while also welcoming the engagement of others.

She reiterated that to The Project.

"I think the only point we're making is that for all of the engagement that we are seeing, be it from China, or be it from France, or be it from the UK or the EU generally, we take a country-neutral response on engagement.

"We ask for the same thing though and that same thing is to make sure that the priorities are Pacific-based, that it is free from coercion, that we have high-quality investment in our region and you see that collaborative working."

The Chinese media criticism in June followed New Zealand and the United States releasing a joint statement which raised concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the erosion of rights in Hong Kong, and also China and the Solomon Islands' security cooperation deal.

That agreement, first leaked in March, has been opposed by New Zealand and others. The Government's said Honiara should look to Pacific nations for security support and also that no militarisation should occur in the region.

China also sought a Pacific-wide agreement, but that was rejected by regional leaders in May who want to discuss it further together.

Ardern said on Tuesday that militarisation isn't something "our region wants", but that message would be the same to "any partners in our part of the world".

She was also asked if China's push into the Pacific was the result of New Zealand and Australia taking their eye off the ball.

"I think that actually diminishes the sovereignty of our Pacific nations. The idea that ultimately these are sovereign nations, they are going to determine their own relationships," Ardern responded.

"Yes, New Zealand and Australia have been present for a number of years and in New Zealand we consider ourselves of the Pacific. We need to continue being present to respond to the challenges our region has."

That top issue, Ardern said, is climate change. That was at the forefront of conversations between Ardern and Fiame Naomi Mata'afa when the Samoan Prime Minister visited Wellington last month.

The Prime Minister was also questioned over comments she made at the Chatham House event about how "diplomacy" is important for avoiding conflicts. She was challenged at the event over whether this would work to deter China from invading Taiwan - as there are fears it might - when it failed to stop Russia invading Ukraine.

Ardern stood by her comments on The Project.

"If the alternative is an arms race, then yes, we would come back to diplomacy as our central tenet for what we should be driving at this particular point in time.

"If you take a look at the war we are seeing in Europe, I don't think anyone would want the legacy of the war in Ukraine to, for instance, be a greater proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are at a juncture right now where I think it is important for those countries who take a very strong stance on issues like nuclear weapons, as New Zealand does, to make sure that is being elevated on the world stage."

At a NATO summit in Spain last week, Ardern said the "crossroads that the world finds itself at should be the basis" for ending the production of nuclear weapons.

New Zealand isn't a member of NATO, but attended the meeting alongside the leaders of Australia, South Korea and Japan as the North Atlantic military alliance looks to strengthen its cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Our presence there and comments Ardern made about China becoming "more assertive" riled up Beijing, which said New Zealand wasn't helping keep "our bilateral relations on the right track".