MUMBAI: Australia's prime minister said Thursday that India offered an "abundance of opportunities", on the first day of a visit during which he is expected to sign a long-awaited uranium deal with the energy-starved nation.
Tony Abbott is expected to sign the agreement to sell uranium to India when he meets India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a fellow conservative, in Delhi on Friday.
Modi swept to power in May promising to open up Asia's third-largest economy to foreign investment.
"The purpose of this trip, as far as I'm concerned, is to acknowledge the importance of India in the wider world, acknowledge the importance of India to Australia's future," he told business leaders in Mumbai at the start of a two-day visit also aimed at boosting trade.
"There is an abundance of opportunities here in India. I am determined to make the most of them."
India and Australia kick-started negotiations on uranium sales in 2012 after Canberra lifted a long-standing ban on exporting the valuable ore to Delhi to meet its ambitious nuclear energy programme.
Australia, the world's third-largest producer of uranium, had previously ruled out selling the metal because nuclear-armed India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Safeguards in place
Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who is travelling with Abbott, said Canberra was now happy with India's precautions to ensure Australian uranium exports would be used only for peaceful purposes.
"We have satisfied ourselves that the steps (for appropriate safeguards) are in place," Robb said this week.
In the financial capital, Abbott laid a wreath at a memorial for victims of the 2008 attacks on the city before visiting Mumbai University to launch a scheme designed to get more Australians studying in the country.
While about 40,000 Indians study in Australia each year, "regrettably right now there are just a few tens of Australian students studying in India," said Abbott.
"That must change and that will change as a result of the New Colombo Plan," he said, referring to the scholarship programme that will be rolled out across the Indo-Pacific region.
He said Australia now wanted a "two-way street" in terms of student exchanges with the region.
Before heading on to Delhi, the premier will also meet Indian cricketing great Sachin Tendulkar and former Australian stars Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee, ahead of Australia's hosting of the World Cup next year.
But analyst and former Indian diplomat Neelam Deo said all eyes will be on the nuclear deal, which will boost future exports and heralds closer strategic ties.
"The deal has been in the works for years and was mostly negotiated by the previous Labor government," Deo, director of Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House, told AFP.
"The signing of the deal removes one of the only challenges to closer ties between the countries in the region."
Sanjay Bhattacharya, Indian foreign ministry joint secretary, said on the eve of Abbott's arrival that "significant outcomes" were expected from the visit.
"For us, Australia is a major supplier of resources, particularly energy necessary for our development needs."
India, which is heavily dependent on coal for generating power, has 20-odd small nuclear plants with plans for more.
The deal with Australia would potentially ramp up those plans, as India struggles to produce enough power to meet rising demand and suffers crippling power shortages.
Australia's decision to overturn its ban on sales to India followed a landmark 2008 deal between Delhi and Washington for the United States to support India's civilian nuclear programme.
Abbott is due to head on to Malaysia on Saturday for talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, before returning home. -AFP