India and Australia on Thursday announced the launch of the formal negotiations of a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA) also known as Free Trade Agreement (FTA) aimed at liberalising and broadening the base of merchandise trade, removing non-tariff barriers and encouraging investments between the two nations.

The first round of FTA talks will be held in June in New Delhi. Making a formal announcement in Canberra after holding bilateral talks with the Australian trade Minister, Craig Emerson, the Indian Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma also announced that both India and Australia had agreed to double their bilateral trade from $20 billion at present to $40 billion during the next five years.

Mr. Sharma said FTA was of critical importance at building pathways towards closer economic integration to enable trade and investments to flourish. He said both he and Mr. Emerson discussed the work being done for economic and cultural engagement including negotiations of double taxation, social security and film co-production agreements.

“The FTA will help in removing non-tariff barriers that impede trade and services, facilitating investments and addressing the behind the border restrictions to trade,'' Mr. Sharma said at a press briefing here.

He said the FTA was aimed at greater economic integration between the two countries. India is already Australia's third largest export market. The Commerce Minister also informed his counterpart that India has a focussed objective to modernise agriculture sector and its post-harvest technologies and welcomed 100 per cent FDI in the agriculture and food processing sectors. Demand for Australian commodities such as gold, coal, and copper is driving trade.

Mr. Sharma said the FTA will give further momentum to the economic engagement and said would facilitate the smooth movement of professionals from India to Australia. “We are also looking at enhanced cooperation with the Australian entrepreneurs in pharmaceuticals and other trade to increase the share of Indianexports to Australia,'' he added.

Mr. Sharma and Mr. Emerson also announced the setting up of a CEO's Forum which would be co-chaired by Congress MP and industrialist, Naveen Jindal from the Indian side and Linday Fox from the Australiain side.

Mr. Emerson and Mr. Sharma will meet again at the OECD Ministerial Council in Paris later this month where they will continue their discussions.

Mr. Sharma also called on the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and discussed issues of bilateral interest. He also met the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd and four other Cabinet Ministers of the Gillard Cabinet to hold bilateral talks.

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