New Zealand’s foreign minister on Friday hit out at China’s bid for an increased security presence in the Pacific Islands, warning against actions that could “destabilise” or undermine regional security.

“China has a long-standing presence in the Pacific, but we are seriously concerned by increased engagement in Pacific security sectors,” Winston Peters said in a speech on relations with China that offered rare criticism of New Zealand’s key trading partner.

China has enticed a string of Pacific Island states to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing and has inked a secretive security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Chinese police, research and military ships have become an increasingly common sight in the region, sparking a battle for influence with the United States and concerns that the region — racked by violence during World War II — will again become the scene of a battle between great powers.

“We do not want to see developments that destabilise the institutions and arrangements that have long underpinned our region’s security” Peters told the New Zealand China Council in Auckland.

China is New Zealand’s largest export market, and a key customer for its dairy, meat and other products.

Wellington has long been one of Beijing’s closest partners among Western democracies.

But relations have soured in recent years as China has looked to expand its military and diplomatic power across a swath of the Pacific, and beyond.

Peters is part of a recently elected centre-right conservative coalition that has pivoted toward closer relations with Australia and the United States, and a less cosy relationship with Beijing.

In March, Wellington publicly said a Chinese “state-sponsored group” was behind a 2021 “malicious” cyber attack that infiltrated sensitive government computer systems.

The country’s counter-espionage agency said a state-backed group known as “APT40” compromised computers linked to its parliamentary network.

New Zealand politicians have traditionally been cautious about any comments or actions that risk China’s ire, for fear of incurring damaging political or economic sanctions like those levied on Australia and Canada by Beijing.

China’s Communist Party rulers dismiss allegations of hacking and political interference while accusing smaller nations of being puppets of Washington.

Earlier this week Peters gave a speech urging New Zealanders to consider joining a landmark defence technology pact with Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Arguing the underpinnings of New Zealand’s independent-minded foreign policy has “seismically shifted” Peters said New Zealand should take part in AUKUS efforts to develop advanced military technology like artificial intelligence, undersea drones and hypersonic missiles.

The pact is fiercely opposed by Beijing, which says it is designed to contain China.