New Delhi: India and Australia are to begin talks to hammer out an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation in March in a move that is expected to boost their bilateral strategic partnership to a higher level.

The decision was announced after talks between Indian and Australian foreign ministers in New Delhi at the conclusion of the eighth foreign ministers’ framework dialogue on Monday.

Afghanistan, maritime security, terrorism and cyber security were the other issues discussed at the meeting, a press statement issued by the Australian high commission said.

After the talks, India’s foreign minister Salman Khurshid said India and Australia would start “negotiations on a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement led by our ministry of external affairs and the Australian ministry of foreign affairs and trade, in March 2013, in New Delhi".

Khurshid said “the sense of urgency and commitment" on both sides was clear, when asked about a schedule.

“These are very important negotiations. Of course, we have done negotiations with other countries successfully on this, so there is a backdrop available, there are models available. Australia has a very significant contribution to make in the field of nuclear energy and on non-proliferation, and I think, therefore, when we speak on matters of high import, to actually put an artificial deadline... would not be appropriate," he said.

India’s principal interest in negotiating a civil nuclear agreement with Australia is to secure uranium ore which is the fuel used in atomic power plants, according to G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Australia. He welcomed the announcement but said the talks could take time to conclude, given that Australia has a very strong non-proliferation lobby. “The talks will involve very detailed and technical negotiations resolving issues on safeguards. India will have to see what they want. It could take time," Parthasarathy said.

India and Australia announced their intention to engage in talks on cooperation in civil nuclear energy during Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to India in October. This was preceded by the Australian Labour Party in December 2011 voting to lift a long-standing ban on the sale of uranium to India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

Energy starved India—Asia’s third-largest economy—is looking to nuclear power to supplement its existing options to fuel economic growth. India has already concluded civil nuclear cooperation agreements with a clutch of countries, including Argentina, Kazakhstan and Namibia, and is in talks with some others like Japan.

Australian foreign minister Bob Carr said the strategic and economic relations of both countries were “converging in a way they have never done before." India was Australia’s fourth-largest export market with two-way trade exceeding A$ 18 billion last year. “We discussed further strengthening bilateral investment and trade, including the Australian minister for trade’s visit to India later this month to advance our Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement," Carr said, without giving any timetable for the conclusion of talks.

On security cooperation, Khurshid said India’s defence minister A.K. Antony would visit Australia soon. Both countries have been concerned about piracy in the Indian Ocean and the safety of sea lanes in the Straits of Malacca. But both sides ruled out any “quadrilateral" mechanism uniting Australia, India, Japan and the US or a “trilateral" arrangement among Australia, India and Japan for defence cooperation.

Carr dismissed a trilateral arrangement as “hypothetical" while describing the idea of a “quadrilateral" as even more ambitious. Khurshid agreed with Carr, stating that both countries were “on the same page" on the subject with support for the freedom of navigation in open seas.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had suggested a quadrilateral framework uniting Australia, India, Japan and the US—dubbed the Arc of Democracy, with speculation that it was aligned against China—when he was in office in 2006-07. Abe’s return as Prime Minister in December and rising tensions between China and Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea have revived speculation about a possible alliance to keep a rising China in check.

Carr said both sides had water resources as a new area of cooperation, with Australia keen to share its expertise and knowhow given that it was a drought-prone country with erratic rainfall.

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