Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: India and Australia have agreed to work towards taking their ties to the strategic level.

In a joint statement released after discussions between Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee and his visiting Australian counterpart Stephen Smith here on Friday, the two leaders noted their bilateral ties have recorded significant growth in political, economic, defence and scientific fields, and people-to-people cooperation.

The next step would be to take the level of relations to a “strategic partnership” with both Foreign Ministers resolving to work towards the objective.

They noted the progress on the feasibility study on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and felt the task should be completed before the year-end. They also reaffirmed their strong commitment to the successful conclusion of the WTO Doha Round. Both sides hold divergent views on agriculture, the prime cause for its stalling.

The joint statement noted the emerging partnership in science and technology, particularly the ability of the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund to attracting hi-tech projects, including in biotechnology, which could have commercial spin-off

Both countries noted that people-to-people links were being underpinned by education -- in the first seven months of 2008, over 77,000 Indian students have enrolled in Australian institutions - making it the second most popular destination for Indian students seeking education overseas. Welcoming the increase in cooperation between the armed forces across an “expanding front,” the Ministers took note of the scheduling of the inaugural bilateral talks between Chairman, Chiefs of Staff committee and Chief of the Naval Staff of India and Chief of Defence Forces of Australia to be held in November this year.

On the regional and multilateral front, Mr. Mukherjee welcomed the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) decision to accord observer status to Australia, while Mr. Smith reiterated Australia’s support for India’s membership of Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC).

In addition, both sides would hold consultations on Australia’s initiative on Asia Pacific Community (APC) later this year.