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Australia makes fresh push for free trade deal, sends former PM Abbott to talk to Modi govt

Australia is planning to begin negotiations for the long-pending trade pact with India even as sticky issues concerning tariff reduction in agriculture goods remain.

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New Delhi: Nearly a decade ago, India and Australia began talks for a free trade agreement. But sticky issues like tariff reduction stalled the progress and not much could be achieved. The last time talks took place was six years ago. Now, Canberra is making a fresh effort to push the long-pending deal with New Delhi.

On Monday, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott began his week-long visit to India as incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ‘Special Trade Envoy for India’. He will have another go at making a pitch for the deal during his visit.

“The Australia-India bilateral relationship is at an historic high. In 2020, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morrison elevated our relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. We also committed to strengthening our economic relationship,” Barry O’Farrell, Australian High Commissioner to India said in a statement.

“Australia is keen to deepen our trade and investment links with India, and take our economic relationship to the next level. Increasing bilateral trade and investment will help drive economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and build secure and resilient supply chains,” he said.

“Mr Abbott looks forward to discussions on the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, which will propel our economic relationship to its full potential, to the mutual benefit of the Indian and Australian people,” O’Farrell added.

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How negotiations have progressed so far

India and Australia began negotiating the FTA, officially known as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), in 2011. The two sides had targeted to conclude the talks by December 2015.

However, after several rounds of negotiations, the talks got stuck over reduction, and in some cases, elimination, in tariffs on agricultural produce, especially dairy products, which was one of the main demands by the Australian side, sources told ThePrint.

No formal round of negotiations have taken place since September 2015, sources said. Only nine formal rounds have taken place so far.

“The (Abbott) visit will see both sides kick-starting the formal round of negotiations… That is not to say the talks will begin immediately but this is at least a good start,” said an official who refused to be identified, adding that the sticky issues around tariffs remain.

The Abbott visit

According to a report by The Guardian, the Australian government is spending about $19,000 for this visit. But Tony Abbott will not be remunerated for the work.

Abbott, who was Australia’s PM between 2013 and 2015, will focus on other aspects of the relationship too, with ties between New Delhi and Canberra having been upgraded to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in June 2020.

Modi and Abbott know each other well. Both leaders had called for enhancing defence partnership between the two countries when Abbott last visited India in 2014 as the PM.

Sources said during this visit, Abbott is also likely to discuss India’s participation in Exercise Talisman Sabre, regarded as Australia’s largest war games, by 2023.

India had allowed Australia’s participation in Malabar maritime exercise in October 2020.

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton has reportedly said that as a Quad partner India should be part of Talisman, adding that efforts are being made in that direction to bring it on board by 2023.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

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