Seminar on “The Indo Pacific: An Australian Perspective”

Originally published in 1982, Anthony Milner’s Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule has become one of the most frequently-cited works on Southeast Asian History. On November 8th, Professor Milner launched the second edition of Kerajaan at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


Tuesday, 8th January 2018 – Retired Australian diplomat and civil servant Mr Peter Varghese delivered a seminar on Australia’s embrace of the concept of the Indo-Pacific to a 50-strong audience comprising researchers, diplomats, journalists, and members of the public. Currently the chancellor of the University of Queensland, Mr Varghese had an illustrious 38-year career in the Australian public service, most recently serving as the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2012 to 2015.

Mr Peter Varghese during his presentation (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

For Mr Varghese, the Australian approach to the Indo-Pacific is best characterized as an “evolution and expansion of Australia’s Asia-Pacific bearings, not its rejection”. Although the Asia-Pacific has served as Australia’s strategic environment since the post-war period, a “recognition of an emerging structural shift” in the region has necessitated this reorientation to the Indo-Pacific. First is the rising importance of the “maritime environment” as a “focus of strategic planning and strategic competition over the next several decades.” Second is the expectation that India’s strategic focus over the next few decades will “shift well beyond India’s immediate neighbourhood”, thus embedding the country in “the strategic dynamics of the broader region in a way it has not in the post-war period”. Here, Mr Varghese clarified that the Indo-Pacific is not about extending “the footprint of Australia’s primary strategic focus all the way to the western reaches of the Indian Ocean”, but rather as a useful conceptual frame which helps in “bringing India to Asia-Pacific”. As such, Mr Varghese described the Indo-Pacific in terms of “an Asia Pacific which finds room to accommodate India as a key strategic player”.

From left to right: Dr Malcolm Cook and Mr Peter Varghese (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The Indo Pacific concept is also an acknowledgment that “multipolarity in Asia is only going to get stronger”, especially with China’s increasing economic and military strength. According to Mr Varghese, engagement with China must continue, and its rise “managed not frustrated”, and “balanced not contained”. The challenge is thus to construct “a balance of power which finds room for China, but which also advances the interests of the region’s democracies”. Significantly, the balance of power that Mr Varghese seeks is not a traditional “military balance” or an orchestrated “classic balance of power grouping”, but rather a balance that reflects both military and economic strengths, as well as one that evolves in an “incremental and organic” manner.

The audience during the seminar (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

To that end, he called for deeper U.S. engagement in the region, acknowledging that “without the U.S., there can be no effective balance”. Mr Varghese also warned against a “capital “A” alliance of democracies” since it would only serve to provoke Chinese fears of containment while alienating countries such as Indonesia and India. However, this still leaves room for the initiatives such as the quadrilateral between U.S., Japan, India, and Australia, which can serve as ”a signal to China about the strategic congruence among these four democracies as well as the enduring importance of values in our strategic calculations”. Mr Varghese also reiterated the importance of strengthening “inclusive regional institutions” such as the East Asia Summit, which for him can help to “buttress strategic stability” in the region.