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PM's visit opens new chapter with India

Date

Michelle Grattan and Ben Doherty, Delhi

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is all smiles as she returns to Canberra from India.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is all smiles as she returns to Canberra from India. Photo: Andrew Meares

JULIA Gillard declared that the obstacles which existed in the Australia-India relationship have now been dealt with, as she wound up her visit with an agreement to start negotiating safeguards for uranium exports.

''We have reassured people about the circumstances for Indian students in Australia and we've changed our attitude on uranium, and that has been appreciated here,'' she said. ''I don't think there are any outstanding obstacles.''

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made special mention of the two sensitive issues at the conclusion of his talks with Ms Gillard, expressing appreciation on both fronts.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on her official visit.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on her official visit. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

''This visit by Prime Minister Gillard is bound to open a new chapter in India-Australia relations,'' he said. ''We look forward to the further strengthening of these relations.''

The leaders agreed to annual formal meetings between the two countries' prime ministers - which will mostly take place when they are both at one of the many international summits that they both attend.

Ms Gillard said having a formal regular leaders' meeting was important because it kept momentum in the relationship - it gave ''high level oversight of how the relationship is developing and what more needs to be done''.

She renewed the invitation to Dr Singh to visit Canberra - no Indian PM has been to Australia for 26 years.

On uranium, negotiations for a civil nuclear co-operation agreement will start soon, although exports are not expected to begin for at least a year or two. Ms Gillard also met Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna, who stressed the importance of removing the irritant of the nuclear ban from the two countries' relationship.

''[Mr] Krishna thanked her for positively reversing the uranium supply policy to India, a non-NPT member, and a risk she has taken politically while doing so,'' an official source said.

The Prime Minister and Mr Krishna also talked about the drawdown of Australian troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO's pull-out by 2014.

India does not have troops in the country, but an unstable Afghanistan post-withdrawal is a regional security issue.

Australia and India will also deepen their defence relations, especially through more naval exercises. ''Currently our defence relationship is underdeveloped. Indeed we have stronger defence ties with China than we do with India,'' Ms Gillard said.

''So naval exercising is an obvious way of taking the relationship forward, given our shared interest in the Indian Ocean. But we would be open to other forms of military co-operation including exchanges and training.''

Ms Gillard also met India's newly installed President, former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, discussing trade and investment links and energy security, as well as the two countries' co-operation through multilateral forums such as the G20.

Mr Mukherjee, long a proponent of India winning a permanent seat on an expanded UN Security Council, thanked Ms Gillard for Australia's support of India's candidature.

The two countries have signed several memorandums ranging from co-operating on civil space science to facilitating student mobility.

On student welfare, Ms Gillard contrasted attitudes in India now with the ''media feeding frenzy about the circumstances of Indian students in Australia'' that she found when she visited in 2009, as education minister, to tackle the problem.

''My engagement with the Indian media during this trip has been much more measured. There's an understanding that we've responded and reacted to the welfare issues,'' she said.

During her visit, Ms Gillard also spent time on ''people to people issues'' - visiting a cricket clinic for children run by the charity Magic Bus, and meeting young people from a slum.

The visit received some high-profile local publicity through the award of an Order of Australia honour to champion batsman Sachin Tendulkar. At home, Ms Gillard got some unwanted publicity after a spectacular fall when her heel bogged in soft grass.

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