Reshaping Australia’s health security engagement in the Indo-Pacific

The global spread of Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of having a health security strategy that extends way outside of Australia.

The Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade demonstrates Australia’s commitment to preparedness for health emergencies in the Indo-Pacific. The centre was established in 2017 to build capacity in laboratory surveillance and field-based epidemiology and to drive research that enhances pandemic preparedness and response and supports Australia’s biosecurity priorities.

The centre works closely with national and regional bilateral and multilateral partners to deliver on the International Health Regulations 2005, which lay out the core capacities that all World Health Organization member states are required to have. Progress on meeting the core capacities is assessed through independent joint external evaluations that identify gaps and support states to develop work plans to fill the gaps.

One core capacity that’s consistently evaluated as poor in almost all countries in the Indo-Pacific is the linking of public health and security authorities during a suspected or confirmed biological event. Linking is evidenced by the development and formal acceptance of a memorandum of understanding or other agreement or protocol between a country’s public health and security authorities and by the development of country-specific training curriculums. While a supporting national and international partner is identified for many of the core capacities, the regulations and guidance don’t say who is responsible for resourcing activities related to building capacity in the public security sector and driving formal partnerships between public health and public security.

In response to Covid-19, the Chinese government mobilised its Public Security Bureau to lock down Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei Province for over two months. It’s doubtful that many countries could (or would want to) implement the extreme control measures taken in Wuhan, which have included using the mass surveillance capacity of the Chinese state and strict door-to-door enforcement.

While the Wuhan approach drew praise from the WHO, it didn’t involve public security playing a ‘partnership’ role with public health. Neither do many of the various Covid-19 responses being rolled out across the globe. In fact, we’re seeing the sort of securitisation of health that global health and human rights experts have traditionally rallied against.

As geopolitical dynamics continue to change in the Indo-Pacific region and states’ influence becomes increasingly contested, reshaping and reinvigorating what Australia can offer in our security sector engagement presents a significant opportunity.

While Covid-19 is the virus of the moment, infectious disease outbreaks are common in the Indo-Pacific. From African swine fever in China to measles in the Pacific, it’s clear that the region’s infectious disease surveillance and response capacity is under pressure. Finding ways to build the knowledge and capacity of workers in the frontline security sector would boost disease surveillance, preparedness and response. It would also begin to diversify Australia’s traditional offers to those sectors.

Now is the time to shape how our security sector partners in regional countries engage with their public health sectors. Supporting them to partner in public health will create a safe and apolitical environment in which we can innovate and re-energise our engagement.

We need to bring in new partners at the operational intersection of public health and public security. Conversations spanning organisational boundaries could explore how capabilities can be effectively realigned in times of crisis, without challenging existing organisational power structures. It would also be an opportunity to look at the potential of soft power in the region to provide an alternative to the training offered by China’s Public Security Bureau and make use of the excellent relationships and reach of our defence and policing networks.

Since 2018, the Australian Federal Police has included pandemic preparedness in the curriculum for the regional executive leadership program, which is delivered through the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation. The role of police in pandemic preparedness now accounts for 20% of the program. Indo-Pacific law-enforcement leaders who attended the program in 2018 and 2019 have reportedly been heavily involved in shaping police engagement in the Covid-19 response in many countries in the region.

Discussions in Canberra in December 2019 explored the potential for a multiagency security sector platform to enhance pandemic preparedness in the Indo-Pacific by developing the capacity of security sector personnel in a range of countries.

A trial of such an initiative would involve Australian agencies collaborating with regional partners to design, test and evaluate capacity-building opportunities, including training, developing cross-sector policies and protocols, improving baseline knowledge about infectious disease, and using technical platforms developed by Australian scientists and researchers. Personnel from Australia’s defence, police, customs, immigration and border agencies as well as military–civilian entities would identify country-level opportunities. Such an approach would allow lessons to be learned quickly and disseminated at scale. It would also signal our intention to build the core capacities of security sector personnel right across the breadth of an agency.

Australia’s experiences in the recent bushfires and in the Covid-19 crisis have demonstrated how difficult it can be to redeploy agencies in roles that aren’t their traditional core business and to bring agencies together to create a larger capability—but it is critical work. Surely it’s worthwhile to support security sector partners and build their capacity to act as partners in public health and play an instrumental role in protecting it.

Civil societies are in part defined by the interaction between citizens and state security agencies. Focusing a partnering public health lens on the role of the security sector would be a risk-free opportunity to boost our engagement in the Indo-Pacific and help shape the operational cultures of security agencies in the region while reinforcing global health. It would be a win–win for all involved.