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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India and Britain on Tuesday talked up their prospects of developing a new trading relationship, as their finance ministers met to prepare for the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond flew in to New Delhi for talks with Indian counterpart Arun Jaitley, days after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the formal start of the Brexit process.
Hammond played down the risks of a so-called "hard Brexit", in which Britain would lose access to the markets of the bloc's other 27 nations if the two sides cannot reach a consensus deal within a two-year deadline.
"We have made the decision that we will not be part of the structure of the European Union, but we've also made very clear that we want to negotiate the maximum possible open trade relationship with the European Union," Hammond told a news conference after a joint economic and financial dialogue.
"We hope to be able to negotiate a deep and special relationship with the European Union that will allow us to go on trading and investing in each other's economy, but at the same time allow us to rebuild our relationships with our partners and allies around the world."
May received a cool reception on her first visit to India last November, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressing the importance not only of trade but also of freedom of movement for his country's skilled workers.
Hammond later told UK journalists that May's goal of reducing immigration to below 100,000 people per year would not have an adverse affect on Indian skilled workers and students seeking to go to Britain.
That was a long-term target, he said: "We know that our economy today has a significant dependence on migrant labour and will continue to do so for some time to come."
Sixty percent of work visas were granted by Britain to Indian nationals - more than all other countries combined - while the number of Indians studying in the UK was rising again after a crackdown on bogus courses, he added.
In India, the world's fastest-growing large economy with a population of 1.3 billion, Britain has a massive market opportunity - but also a counterpart not known for favouring free trade.
Still, Jaitley struck a positive note by saying, "The United Kingdom, post-Brexit, is looking at a different level of relationship with India. And there's a huge aspiration in India itself also to add to and improve on this relationship."
No formal negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement would be possible until Britain has formally left the European Union, but Hammond said the two sides would have a "deep discussion" in the meantime.
In a joint statement, the ministers highlighted a pact for each country to put 120 million pounds into a joint fund under India's National Investment and Infrastructure Fund to invest in energy and renewables.
They also discussed efforts to make India's rupee currency more freely tradeable on international markets, and promote so-called 'masala' bonds, by which Indian firms borrow in their own currency from investors in the City of London.
The National Highways Authority of India, the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency and the Indian Railway Finance Corporation all plan to issue masala bonds in the coming months, they added.
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Hugh Lawson