By NIRMALA GEORGEAssociated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) - India and Australia began talks Wednesday to strengthen economic and strategic ties and explore cooperation in civilian nuclear energy.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, on a three-day visit to India, was to meet with her Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, later Wednesday, Indian officials said.
Officials from the two sides discussed Australia's decision to overturn a long-standing ban on exporting uranium to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India is among those countries.
Australia has 40 percent of the world's known uranium reserves but sells uranium only for power generation under strict conditions.
Energy-starved India has been desperately seeking uranium sources to run its nuclear power plants, and Australia's past refusal to sell the mineral has been a sore point in relations between the two countries.
India has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, saying it discriminates against countries that carried out tests after the treaty came into force in 1970.
Uranium sales to India will be possible once the two countries reach agreement on a nuclear safeguard arrangement, with India giving assurances that the uranium will not be diverted to its military program.
"The thing that would have to happen next is the negotiation of a comprehensive civil nuclear co-operation agreement," Gillard told reporters.
She later told business leaders that "There is a good potential for partnership in the energy sector."
Gillard said she expects discussions on uranium sales to last one to two years.
The two leaders also were expected to discuss defense cooperation, maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, terrorism and ways to boost trade.
"We want to work together to strengthen our economic partnership and strengthen our strategic partnership," Gillard said.
Trade between the two countries grew from $4 billion in 2000 to more than $20 billion last year. India is Australia's fourth-biggest market, and trade is expected to double to $40 billion by 2015.
"Indian investment approvals in Australia grew last year alone to over $11 billion. This is a one hundred-fold increase from 10 years ago," Gillard told the business leaders.
Australian universities are trying hard to entice Indian students to return to Australia to pursue college or professional degrees. The number of Indian students studying in Australia fell after a series of racial attacks that spiked in 2009.
Gillard also announced that Australia will confer its highest civilian honor, the Order of Australia, on Indian cricket wizard Sachin Tendulkar, a decision that will go down well in cricket-mad India.
"This is a very special honor that is very rarely awarded to someone who is not an Australian citizen," Gillard said.
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