China has hit out at New Zealand after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released a joint statement with Washington on "shared concerns" about Beijing's influence in the Pacific.
It comes after China last month signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, raising regional tensions and drawing the ire of Australia and the United States.
A planned agreement with 10 Pacific island nations was derailed on Monday after talks failed to broker a deal.
President Joe Biden and Ardern issued a statement on Tuesday, during her visit to America, where they reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and New Zealand and raised concerns about China's pact with the Solomon Islands.
The statement warned the "establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both our countries."
And, touching a nerve with Beijing, it hit out at "unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea" and "human-rights violations in Xinjiang" along with the erosion of "rights and freedoms in Hong Kong".
China's state media, widely seen as a mouthpiece for Beijing, fired off a response, accusing Wellington of "smearing and demonising" China.
The Global Times wrote that the statement showed the United States was treating the Pacific as its "backyard" and warned Wellington was "leaning towards" Washington in order to help the US maintain hegemony in the region.
At a press conference, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China "firmly opposed" the New Zealand-US joint statement and accused the leaders of "deliberately" hyping the South China Sea issue, and making "irresponsible comments on China's internal affairs related to Taiwan".
Zhao said the US remarks exposed the "US bullying practice of projecting its own image and imposing its own will on to others."
China's ambassador to New Zealand also separately warned Wellington not to take its relationship with Beijing for granted, The Australian reports.
New Zealand has for years walked the tightrope of a close alliance with the United States and Australia as its economy grows closer to China.
A bilateral free trade agreement was signed in 2008, with dairy, meat and wood products among lucrative New Zealand exports.
The statement by the Chinese official signals that New Zealand could be the next target of Chinese economic coercion.
Beijing launched an unofficial trade war on Australia in August 2020 after Canberra angered the Chinese leadership by pushing for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and banning Huawei from Australia's 5G rollout.
China essentially stopped buying products like barley, beef, coal, copper and cotton from Australia in what was interpreted as economic retaliation.
China outlined 14 grievances with Australia including the "independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, banning Huawei from the 5G network in 2018 and blocking 10 Chinese foreign investment deals."
A Chinese official told the Sydney Morning Herald that if Australia backed away from the policies it would be "conducive to a better atmosphere".
Chinese officials refused phone calls from Australian ministers as diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze.
And there are growing concerns that New Zealand could be similarly targeted if it crosses the line with Beijing.
Newstalk ZB's chief political reporter Jason Walls told the Herald's Front Page podcast that given New Zealand's reliance on Chinese trade, Wellington needed to be careful about picking a fight with a far larger country.
"New Zealand can be critical of China, but only to a point," Walls said.
"If the Chinese government is upset enough, they could slap some tariffs on our products. And that could devastate a small country like New Zealand."