Australia pressed to show leadership on Indo-Pacific health ahead of Quad meeting

Access to Covid vaccines is set to be one of the main talking points when Scott Morrison meets with Joe Biden and the leaders of Japan and India

Australia has been urged to seize a leadership role in promoting health security across the Indo-Pacific, with analysts highlighting efforts by China and Russia to increase their regional influence through “vaccine diplomacy”.

Access to Covid-19 vaccines is likely to be one of the main items on the agenda when Scott Morrison joins a virtual meeting with the US president, Joe Biden, and the prime ministers of Japan and India on Saturday morning Australian time.

It will be the first-ever meeting of leaders from the four “Quad” countries, an informal grouping that China views warily as an effort to contain its growing influence.

On the eve of the talks, a new report by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre argues the Quad “provides a key opportunity to now strengthen regional health security, which reflects long-standing shared interests by all four governments”.

Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor from the University of Sydney and a specialist in global health security and international relations, said Australia should launch discussions with the US, Japan and India for “a joint regional health security initiative”.

Kamradt-Scott suggested the production and distribution of vaccines within the region as an immediate area for collaboration. In the longer term, he argued, the governments should work to improve disease surveillance and response capacities.

“China and Russia have actively engaged in ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to expand their influence and presence in countries of strategic significance to Australia, including Indonesia and Papua New Guinea,” Kamradt-Scott wrote.

The ideas are outlined in health-related sections of a US Studies Centre report provided to Guardian Australia ahead of its formal release next week.

Australia has already pledged $500m towards the distribution of vaccines in the region but pooling resources would help Australia boost its engagement in the region, wrote Matilda Steward, an honorary associate at the centre.

“Enhanced health cooperation with the United States in south-east Asia and the Pacific would help to ensure a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific, a key Australian national interest,” she wrote.

Steward pointed to estimates that about 35 million infants in south-east Asia have missed routine vaccinations as a result of the pandemic, while pointing to concern about malaria risks in the Pacific.

She called on Australia and the US to work together to help deliver routine immunisations that have been disrupted, or to counter infectious diseases at risk of re-emergence.

Steward argued Canberra’s aid program is still focused primarily on the Pacific, Timor-Leste and Indonesia, despite Morrison’s recent statements that Australia is focused on the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Ahead of the first Quad leader-level talks, Morrison said he could not see why China would be concerned about the elevation of the grouping.

The prime minister said the grouping brought together four liberal democracies with a long-term interest in the Indo-Pacific region, and it was about “standing up for our values”.

“For us, this is where we live, this is where Japan lives, this is where India lives and, of course, the United States across the Pacific has had a long-term presence,” the prime minister told reporters in Sydney on Friday.

“This is about an anchor for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and that benefits all nations of the Indo-Pacific.”

The meeting is being held just days after China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for “true multilateralism” and argued against exclusive groupings.

“Building small circles in the name of multilateralism is in fact ‘group politics’,” Wang said on Monday.

The White House said this week that Biden’s decision to make the Quad one of his earliest multilateral engagements “speaks to the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific”.

Biden has retracted or overturned several Trump administration policies relating to global health, including re-engaging with the World Health Organization.

While some have interpreted this as the US returning to its former global leadership role, the US Studies Centre report says “the reputational damage will take longer to repair”.

Kamradt-Scott said Australia should seize the opportunity “to work closely with the United States to repair the country’s standing in the global health community while simultaneously strengthening regional and global health security”.

While Australian interests are best served by seeing the US re-engage with the global health community, he also said the Biden administration is likely to be focused on turning around its own domestic Covid-19 challenges.

Earlier this week, international aid groups, health organisations and unions called on the Morrison government to support a World Trade Organization proposal designed to allow developing countries to make and sell cheap copies of patented vaccines.


Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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