A historically very significant shift of economic and strategic weight from the West to the East is likely to occur and when it does, “We need to ensure that this historic shift is managed in a stabilising, rather than destabilising way,” according to Peter N. Varghese, who took over as High Commissioner of Australia to India in end August.
All the major powers intersect in the Asia Pacific region and major powers are emerging in China and India. “When you look at the regional architecture at the moment, there is no institution with the mandate and membership to deal with economic and security issues in an integrated way. The key idea behind the Asia Pacific Community is to find a way by which economic and security issues can be addressed by having the right mandate and membership come together,” Mr. Varghese explained. Australia is keen to pursue a role as a constructive middle power, contributing substantially not only to the security of the region, but also global action on a number of issues.
Basically a project conceived of by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Asia Pacific Community is about initiating a dialogue about the challenges the region faces and what are the best ways of dealing with those challenges when the power shift occurs. While 2020 has been set as the deadline for the project, a meeting will be convened in December in Sydney to which government representatives from all countries of the region as well as second track participants from think tanks and academics have been invited, to take this idea forward. “Let us see what that meeting produces in terms of ideas to realise this ambition, which is a long term one,” he added.
In Chennai as part of his familiarisation trip, Mr. Varghese met with members of the government and business community, trying to understand the way regional and state economies and politics works. Mr. Rudd’s visit to India last week has sent out the message that “our geo-strategic positioning is more congruent, and the way we look out on the world is increasingly similar.”
Mr. Varghese also articulated his government’s “zero tolerance” for violent attacks on anyone, least of all guests in Australia, which international students are. “We understand the concern particularly that parents might have about the safety of their kids when they read and watch TV reports on bashings. We want to put it in perspective. Firstly, Australia remains a very safe place, by any measure internationally. The overwhelming experience of international and Indian students is very positive, our surveys show.”
For its part, the government has increased policing and police-student interactions, increased briefings for students and set in place systemic changes to ensure that private colleges meet high criteria in order to be accredited.
“We will ensure to the best of our ability that the perpetrators are brought to justice,” he said, admitting that it was a point of concern that some surveys showed that the image of Australia in the minds of Indians post the attacks has taken a beating. “We will try and put a more balanced picture out there, but it will take time before that damage is fixed,” he added.