The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand has hit back at comments by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that China is becoming more assertive.
In a statement released overnight, it said her comments were unhelpful, regrettable and wrong.
Jacinda Ardern told NATO leaders that China had become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.
Ardern participated in a session with the alliance's Indo-Pacific partners and spoke directly to world leaders at the summit in the Spanish capital, Madrid.
New Zealand is not a member of NATO but was invited by the alliance's secretary general to demonstrate its "close partnership" with countries in the Pacific region.
In her speech, Ardern singled out China's actions as a cause for concern.
"Separately China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms," Ardern said.
"Here, we must respond to the actions we see. 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."
A Chinese embassy spokesperson said such comments were not helpful for keeping relations on the right track.
The Embassy said China was not building up militarily in the South Pacific, but was focusing on development, economic ties and helping with climate change.