India-Australia to launch nuclear talks

New Delhi: India and Australia are set to pack more punch in their bilateral ties Wednesday by announcing the start of civil nuclear negotiations, which, according to visiting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, could take “one or two years”.

Gillard, who is currently on a three-day visit to India — her first trip to the country as the Prime Minister, will hold delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Wednesday.

Before beginning the talks, a ceremonial reception will be held in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan for the visiting Australian leader.

Issues relating to civil nuclear deal are set to figure prominently in the discussions. The two leaders are expected to announce the start of civil nuclear negotiations, paving the way for the sealing of the nuclear deal which could remove the last festering issue in the bilateral relationship.

Ahead of the talks, Gillard struck a realistic note on the prospects of the nuclear deal. A report published in Australian daily The Sydney Morning Herald, quoted her saying that uranium sales to India will not start quickly.

Gillard said negotiating the agreement is “likely to take one or two years, rather than months”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
According to the report, Gillard said Australia knew how to negotiate a proper agreement to ensure uranium was used for peaceful purposes.

Gillard and her Labour Party have been the prime movers behind the ongoing India-Australia nuclear rapprochement despite opposition from nuclear non-proliferation hawks back home to build a robust strategic partnership with India.

In December last year, the Labour Party reversed an earlier policy of not selling uranium to countries which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“India and Australia are now ready to recast their relations beyond what has for too long divided them, notably the strife over students and uranium,” said Rory Medcalf, programme director for international security at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, in an article.

Besides nuclear issues, India and Australia are expected to add more economic content to the burgeoning relationship and will strive to accelerate their negotiations for a comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

Gillard’s visit takes place months after a reversal of Canberra’s long-entrenched policy on supply of uranium to India in December last year.

India and Australia will be launching the next round of CECA negotiations in November.

Bilateral trade in goods has grown rapidly and currently stands at about $17.4 billion in 2011-12. India will be, however, looking to address the issue of adverse trade imbalance as Australian imports are around $15 billion, while India’s exports are just under $2.4 billion.

Indian investments in Australia, estimated to be about $11 billion, were approved last year. About $450 million Australian investments are currently placed in India.

Expanding the ambit of collaboration on cross-cutting global and regional issues, too, will be high on the agenda.

With the Asia-Pacific region emerging as a new arena of competition among global powers, Australia is looking at India as a key factor for stability and balance in the region.

Australia is home to 450,000 Indians.

The attacks on Indian students in Australia, a couple of years ago, have not dimmed the appeal of that country as an education destination with the Australian government launching a multi-pronged plan to prevent such attacks. Currently, there are about 36,000 Indian students who are studying in Australia.