Prime Minister John Key has wrapped up his three-day trip to Bali on a high note, announcing talks for an Asia Pacific trade bloc are "on track" for completion by the end of the year.
However, he warned that even if a deal was struck soon, it could take a decade before there was completely free access for New Zealand exports to countries such as the United States and Japan.
Benefits would start accruing "from day one", though.
Key chaired the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks after United States President Barack Obama pulled out, and he was able to claim the talks still had “momentum” after it agreed to hold to the US target of a deal in 2013.
Talking to reporters after the 90-minute meeting, Key said there was still some "heavy lifting" to do before a deal was done.
He was hopeful, but not certain, the timetable would be met.
But the really historic day would be when the deal was signed.
The leaders of the TPP nations said in a statement they were on track to complete negotiations for a "comprehensive and balanced regional agreement".
It would ensure benefits would be fully shared and take into account "the diversity of our levels of development".
The statement said the deepest and broadest possible liberalisation of trade and investment would ensure the greatest benefits.
They said the TPP was a model for future trade agreements.
Key said the success of TPP would not be decided by whether it was agreed on December 31 or January 31, but by the quality of the deal.
“There will never be immediate access for New Zealand’s products into every one of these markets instantly…. There will be a realistic timeframe. Maybe it’s 10 years, maybe it’s a bit less or it’s a bit more.”
Trade Minister Tim Groser said Japan and the United States would take a lot longer to move to zero tariffs on New Zealand’s dairy exports.
But all countries had agreed to a single tariff schedule.
Asked if all tariffs would be eliminated and if there would be exceptions, he said: "That's the big 'meaning of life' question which is yet to be resolved, but we have all accepted that politically at the highest level."
That represented a win for New Zealand.
If the talks are successful they will deliver the long-sought free-trade deal with the United States - though as part of a multi-country deal.
In a report to leaders, trade ministers from the 12 countries said agreement was yet to be reached on the most sensitive issues of market access for goods,
More work was also needed on trade in services and investment.
Earlier, Key had met United States trade representative Mike Froman to discuss the TPP meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.
He said the US was committed to TPP and a successful conclusion.
The TPP is seen as crucial to the US and would give it the edge over a rival trade grouping, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), backed by South East Asian nations and China, where some believe the TPP’s comprehensive aims do not suit developing and poorer nations.
But Key said yesterday he would not rule out China joining the TPP.
He said NZ and the US were "quite aligned".
Asked if that meant the two now agreed on the role of Pharmac as a central purchasing agency – a major sticking point for the US – Key said he was confident an acceptable deal could be navigated.
"We are not going to sign a deal unless it’s in New Zealand’s best interests."
It was always an option for a country to pull out, but he said there was no sign of that - "the opposite actually."
Critics have called for the draft agreement to be made public but Key rejected that.
"Yes, there’s a degree of saying ‘trust us but only trust us so far’, in that in the end everyone will have a chance to have a look at it. And if other political parties don’t support it, well, it won’t get through the Parliament."
New Zealand stood to gain big benefits from the TPP, as it had from previous free-trade deals, especially from having the US and Japan included.
"Depending on the final structure of the deal we will certainly be able to price up what it’s worth to the New Zealand economy – whether it’s two, three or four billion dollars worth of benefit (and) how many jobs it is likely to create."
Key heads to Brunei today for the East Asia Summit, where he will hold one-on-one talks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, before returning to New Zealand late on Friday.
He said he accepted some people saw these meetings as "talkfests in beautiful locations".
"But actually if you go and analyse the 20 years or so of involvement of New Zealand in the likes of Apec, and for a period of time the East Asian Summit, then it had been hugely beneficial to NZ."
- © Fairfax NZ News