Peter Varghese to be new Australian envoy to India

Peter VargheseMr Peter Varghese, an Indian-Australian and the Director-General of Australia's Office of National Assessments (ONA), has been appointed as the country's new High Commissioner to India.

He will be concurrently accredited to Bhutan. He will succeed Mr John McCarthy, who has been High Commissioner in Delhi since 2004. Mr Varghese is expected to take up his new assignment in August.

The appointment was announced at a press conference here today by Australain Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith, who said Mr Varghese, an ethnic Malayali, would be "a very good High Commissioner for what is a very important relationship."

"The Government wants to take our relationship with India to the front rank of our bilateral relationships, and we look forward to High Commissioner Varghese pursuing good work in India on Australia's behalf," Mr Smith said.

The Minister also said, in response to a question, that the Australian government was taking the recent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and other cities "very, very seriously."

"The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister as Minister for Education, and I have all condemned them absolutely. We are working very closely with the relevant state governments and also very closely with the Indian community, both in Australia and working very closely with the Indian Government through our High Commissioner, High Commissioner McCarthy, in India," he said.

Mr Smith said the high level task force which he had announced last week had met for the second time on Friday, chaired by the National Security Adviser, with participants from all of the states.

"I've spoken to Victorian Premier Brumby. And on Thursday-Friday of last week, my office had close contact with New South Wales Premier Rees's office. So we're working very closely. We're taking it very, very seriously and we condemn all of the terrible incidents which have occurred," he said.

"I note that there are reports over the weekend or overnight of further attacks. Can I say that the advice I have is that some of these suggested attacks have not been reported to police, and it is very important, where people have information or evidence or are the victims of attacks, that these are reported to the police. That's a very, very important part of the process.

I've spoken to my new Indian counterpart a week or so ago, External Affairs Minister Krishna. We are taking this very seriously and I think the Indian Government understands this. We'll continue to work closely with them," he added.

Mr Varghese's appointment comes at a time when, on the one hand, Australia's engagement with India is expanding rapidly. On the other, it is a sensitive time in the relations between the two countries because of the attacks on Indian students. More than 80,000 Indian students are estimated to be studying in Australia and the student market for Australia is said to be a billion dollar one.

Mr Smith said India is Australia's fastest growing export market, with energy and minerals resources the main drivers behind this growth. In 2007-08, India was Australia's eleventh-largest trading partner, with total trade standing at almost $14 billion. In 2008, India was its fourth-biggest merchandise export market.

The current Joint Australia-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Study is exploring the scope for building an even stronger bilateral trade and economic relationship through an FTA. Traditional strengths in the trade relationship are being complemented by new areas, most notably services such as education, he said.

Mr Smith also said that Australia and India engage closely on strategic and defence matters. "Our defence forces engage in joint exercises, particularly, but not only, maritime exercises. Military engagement occurs across the full range of activities, including ship visits, service-to-service level talks, professional exchanges, and research and development collaboration.

In 2008 Australia and India decided to step up strategic cooperation by holding annual talks between the chiefs of our defence forces, and by strengthening intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation," he said.

In other areas, the two countries have set up an Economic Policy Dialogue and have good bilateral engagement on climate change issues. There has been a series of high-level visits between the two countries.

Before taking up his assignment as Director General of the ONA, Mr Varghese was the Senior Adviser (International) to the Prime Minister. From 2002 until July 2003, Mr Varghese was a Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In 2000-02, he was Australia's High Commissioner to Malaysia. He has also served in Australian missions in Vienna (1980-83), Washington (1986-88) and Tokyo (1994).

Mr Varghese is a graduate in history from the University of Queensland and is married with one adult son.

The ONA is an independent body directly accountable to the Prime Minister. It provides all-source assessments on international political, strategic and economic developments to the Prime Minister and senior ministers in the National Security Committee of Cabinet. It is also responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of Australia’s foreign intelligence effort and the adequacy of its resourcing.


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