New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on Thursday urged concrete progress on a Pacific-wide trade pact, saying it was vital to encouraging economic reforms in key economies including Japan.
On the eve of White House talks with President Barack Obama, Key conceded that an Asia-Pacific summit in November was unlikely to seal the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership but called for a strong statement.
"We think it is critically important for confidence around the world to show that progress can be made on trade," Key told reporters, referring to the deadlock in the Doha round of global trade liberalization.
"From our perspective, we'd like to see some sort of agreement signed at Honolulu that at least signifies that we're on the right track," Key said.
He praised the Obama administration -- which has been struggling to push trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea through Congress -- for embracing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"We think there's a real opportunity for the administration to show that momentum still exists" in Honolulu, Key said.
In a speech before the US Chamber of Commerce, Key said that the Trans-Pacific Partnership could serve as "a gateway to increased US participation in Asia" -- including through trade.
Key said the prospect of the giant trade bloc has built pressure for reform and pointed to statements by Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Japan has long fiercely protected its farm sector, while New Zealand is a major food exporter.
"TPP helped prompt Japan's reformist statements on trade -- the most progressive statements they've made in a generation. We know others in the region are paying close attention, too," Key said.
But the trade pact also has strong critics. A number of lawmakers from US farm states want to exclude the dairy sector, fearful at the effects of ending tariffs with New Zealand which is the world's largest dairy exporter.
Civil society groups have also voiced fears, wondering whether US pharmaceutical companies will fight the government support that keeps down the cost of medication in Australia and other wealthy countries.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership involves Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. Japan has voiced interest but has put off a decision in the wake of its massive earthquake.