MUMBAI, Mar 7 (AFP): Australia's Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday Australia was on the threshold of a major expansion in trade with India as Asia seeks to challenge the West as the centre of global economic activity.
Howard, the latest in a series of leaders to travel to India to boost trade, met business chiefs in the financial capital of Mumbai to set out his agenda to ensure Australia is at the heart of Asian trade.
He said links between the two countries "stand on the threshold of greater depth and greater expansion in the years ahead."
Howard said the expanding middle-class in India, variously estimated at 200 to 250 million people, and in other Asian nations was set to overtake those of Europe and the United States over the next decade.
"It does mean the centre of gravity of economic activity is profoundly shifting to this part of the world and right at the centre of it is India.
"I want Australia to remain very much at the centre of it," he said, adding that the two countries' economic links were likely to change "very significantly".
Bilateral trade stands at slightly less than US$ 5.5 billion, according to the most recent Australian figures, with India being Australia's sixth largest market for exports.
India's Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry said the visit by Howard, who last week marked 10 years as leader, could spur India-Australia trade to 16 billion dollars by 2010.
Howard said India was the fastest growing export market for Australia from a list of 30 key nations and also emphasised sporting and educational links.
He follows the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and Ireland to India in recent months to take advantage of the growing opportunities for trade in an economy forecast to grow 8.1 percent in the fiscal year ending March.
Howard arrived in Delhi late Sunday for a four-day visit and is travelling the country with 20 top business executives and former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh.
Howard is also due Tuesday to meet representatives of the Bollywood film industry, the largest movie industry in the world by volume, to promote Australia as a film location.
He was to head later Tuesday to the eastern city of Chennai where he will visit the Dennis Lillee fast bowling cricket academy run by the former Australian paceman.
India and Australia Monday signed agreements on defence cooperation, trade, air services, excise and customs, biotechnology and strategic research. They also reaffirmed their resolve to fight terrorism.
However Howard has failed to agree to India's request to lift an embargo on uranium sales in the wake of a decision by the United States last week to end a 30-year ban on sharing civilian nuclear technology with the country.