As India prepares to welcome Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull next week, negotiators from both sides are hammering out details for the first shipment of Australian uranium under the bilateral civil nuclear agreement.
A Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), negotiations for which were launched nearly six years ago, will not be signed during Turnbull’s visit, with officials saying that both sides continue to have concerns that are yet to be addressed.
The focus of Turnbull’s visit during April 9-12 will be driving high-level exchanges and contacts, security and defence relations and boosting cooperation in education and skill development, sources said.
With Australia’s Civil Nuclear Transfers to India Act becoming effective in December last year, both sides are engaged in commercial negotiations for the sale of uranium to India. “We are hopeful there will be a commercial shipment this year,” a source said.
“Now it is only a question of commercial deals being done and negotiations are ongoing,” Jaideep Mazumdar, joint secretary (south) in the external affairs ministry, told a news briefing. “There are no procedural constraints, it is only a question of commercial negotiations being concluded on issues such as price, quantity, purity.”
Australia will also continue its support for India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and there has been considerable discussion on how to handle New Delhi’s application at the next plenary of the elite group that controls trade in nuclear technology and know-how, sources said.
Australian high commissioner Harinder Sindu said: “CECA will not be signed during the visit. The negotiations are underway and continuing.”
Turnbull and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi will confirm the importance of the CECA but there are “issues on both sides”, Mazumdar said.
India has concerns about sanitary and phytosanitary conditions for its fruits and vegetables. Australia wants better access to Indian markets for its food and agricultural products and has concerns about high Indian tariffs for products such as wine.
“CECA will happen but it is an incredibly complex process. We achieved a lot in 2015 and are now left with a handful of the most difficult issues,” a source said.
For the Australian government, India is among the “top five priority relationships” and Turnbull’s visit will not be about signing “MoUs that don’t go anywhere”, sources said.
Instead, Turnbull will focus on the security relationship with India, which has emerged as a key strategic partner. There will be focus on security in the Indian Ocean, trans-national crime, terrorism, more military-to-military exchanges and exercises such as the AUSINDEX naval wargame, the second edition of which is to be held late this year.
Turnbull will also be accompanied by a delegation that includes the vice-chancellors of almost half of Australia’s universities, reflecting the focus on education and skill development. There are currently 61,000 Indian students in Australia and the focus will be on building educational partnerships, including joint studies and research.