(Bloomberg) -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has again raised concerns about China’s ambitions in the Pacific, repeating her comment that Beijing “has become increasingly assertive in our region.”

“In recent times, there has been growing interest in the Pacific,” Ardern said in a speech at Chatham House in London on Friday. “The foreign policy position of some of the significant members of our region has changed. The order that has brought the region prosperity over the past 80 years is contested.”

Ardern has changed her tone toward China after it signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April and sent its foreign minister on a tour of other Pacific nations in May, sparking concerns it wants to increase its military presence in the region. Previously, New Zealand had tried not to antagonize China -- its largest trading partner -- at times choosing not to co-sign statements from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance criticizing Beijing.

After Ardern warned NATO last week that China was becoming more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington hit back, calling her comments “wrong” and “regrettable.”

China Hits Back at New Zealand’s Ardern After NATO Comments

The embassy said China’s goal in the Pacific is to deepen long-standing partnerships and help island countries enhance their development capacity. 

Ardern told Chatham House it would be wrong to call out China for its mere presence in the Pacific while welcoming engagement from others.

“But it’s the nature of any of these engagements that matters,” she said. 

It was important to ensure that the region “can determine its own priorities,” and the Pacific Islands Forum was the primary place for discussing and determining regional security needs.

It was also important “that we all have the ability to speak freely on matters that concern us, free from coercion,” she said.

Ardern also spoke about the situation in the South China Sea, where she said the rule of law “is challenged.” 

“We are seeing the construction of artificial islands, militarization and actions that pose risks to the freedom of navigation and overflight,” she said.

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