The government has outlined concerns about China's "increasing confidence" and references the risks other major powers such as the US and North Korea may pose on global stability, as part of its long-term strategy for defence.
The 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement includes moves in new areas - namely climate change, cyber security and outer space - as well as a ramping up of concern about some of the actions of countries larger and much more powerful than New Zealand.
Academics say it's the first time the government has put that concern into a formal document.
Defence Minister Ron Mark said this was the coalition government being completely transparent in its views on China.
"They are friends, and people we wish to have better relationships with - but there are some things that are not condusive to peace and stability that raise opportunity for miscalculations that are unhelpful.
"So these matters are highlighted."
He delivered his speech on Friday to an audience of academics, foreign diplomats and military personnel.
"I think the documents are pretty clear. I think actually we haven't been shy to state what we see," he told the audience.
Some, like Victoria University's professor of strategic studies Robert Ayson, were surprised to see the government take such a bold stance on the matter.
"Very clearly from the document you can see that on the whole the New Zealand government is concerned that China is seeking to change aspects of what it calls the rules based order in parts of the Asia-Pacific.
"So I think China will find that this is a difficult one to swallow."
His colleague, Associate Professor David Capie, agreed.
"I don't think China's going to like us talking about the South China Sea. I don't think China's going to like the way it's characterised in the policy statement.
"But a lot of what it actually says is really a chronicalling of what actually happened - islands have been built up, bombers have landed on them, radar stations have been built and so on - and those are facts that nobody disagrees with.
"But China's not going to like this."
National's defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell urged caution, saying the government needed to be very clear on its plan and its position on China.
"New Zealand has got long-standing relationships with China, in lots of different areas, economic interests and trade interests that are pretty important to us."
But Mr Mark did not share the sentiment that China would be disappointed in his government's stance - and said he personally made sure of that.
"This is nothing new to China, I've had this very discussion directly in a one-on-one bilateral conversation with their representative."
He said that conversation happened at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore.
"There's nothing in here we haven't discussed."
Mr Mark was confident the military would be well-equipped for the future, and would be reassessing the $20b military spending plans of the previous government.
He was keen to see procurement of equipment that would mean New Zealand was ready on the front lines - should it be called upon to fight.
"We need to accept, and this government does, that when we equip our military it is because primarily, the first principal, is that they are a combat force.
"They need to be combat-capable, they need to have professional personnel, well trained, well resourced."
Climate change is a major focus of the policy direction, which Mr Mitchell was pleased to see.
"It's consistent with when we were in government, in terms of continuing to make investment into equipment that is going to support our defence forces in being able to respond to climate change. So, I think that's positive."
It also points to a better use of outer space in terms of defence communications, and a big focus on cyber security and its uses as an offensive tool as well as a defensive one.