Pacific Engagement Strategy

Briefing Note Summary

Cairns is the ideal strategic hub for implementation of Australia’s heightened Pacific engagement strategy.

The ambition to establish Cairns as Australia’s Pacific hub is aligned with the Federal Government’s agenda of closer engagement with the Pacific, particularly Papua New Guinea as part of a reset of broader regional geopolitical considerations.

Cairns has the geographic adjacency, structures, business, education and cultural ties, and relationships to become the operational base to deliver many of the programs of the Office of the Pacific.

James Cook University’s new fully Cairns-based medical degree offers the chance to build critical health sector capacity in PNG as part of the Federal Government’s Pacific engagement strategy.

The Issue

Strategic geographic links

“As two big Pacific Ocean states, Australia and PNG must work as equals with our fellow Pacific states to build a stronger, safer, more secure region. All of us have a part to play in realising that vision.” – Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the conclusion of his visit to PNG and following his historic address to the PNG Parliament in January 2023.1

“…We share a desire for a peaceful and stable Pacific region…Australian businesses already invest heavily in PNG, and we explored ways to increase opportunities for industry and for workers.

“We also discussed how we can expand cooperation when it comes to people-to-people connections and support education and training and assist access to the labour market.”2

The Federal Government’s renewed focus on multi-lateral engagement with Papua New Guinea (PNG) further underpins the importance of Cairns as Australia’s natural home for implementing much of the national Pacific Engagement Strategy. With Port Moresby, Cairns’ closest capital city, the geographic proximity would provide the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Office of the Pacific with close direct air and sea access to Pacific nations and would enable stronger partnerships for economic growth, regional security, free trade and critical business-to-business and people ties.

The establishment of Cairns as the Pacific hub for Australia is aligned with the Federal Government’s own agenda in which PNG “…and Australia share a desire for a peaceful and stable Pacific region”.1 Cairns is home to a multicultural society and with 10,000+ PNG nationals residing in the region, it is already a base for Australia’s participation in the development of cultural and educational research and teaching, health care, marine training, and more for South Pacific nations. The role of Cairns as a cultural and commercial hub for the Pacific nations was recognised with the Department of Defence awarding the contract for Pacific Maritime Training Services to TAFE Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef International Marine College.

The impacts of COVID-19 have been greatly felt by Pacific nations, with their heavy reliance on tourism a key pillar of economic development.3 To address the economic challenges of our Pacific neighbours, as well as the workforce shortages in Australia due to the pandemic, the Pacific Labour Scheme has become an important program for both nations. It helps address labour shortages in Australia whilst supporting economic prosperity in participating countries and helps Pacific economies recover from the impacts of COVID-19. With its existing links to the Pacific community, Cairns would be a natural location for the organisational hub of the Pacific Labour Scheme. From now until 2030, the Pacific region is estimated to need US$3.1bn in investment per year.3 While Australia has consistently been the largest investor in the region, with a record $1.44bn in 2020-2021, a total of 62 countries are active Pacific investors with the top five being Australia, China, New Zealand, the United States, and Japan. Australia has traditionally focussed on building capacity for social initiatives such as health care, policing, and security, while other countries such as China have focussed on catalytic infrastructure projects such as marine facilities, airports, and roads.

Health workforce is a vital concern for PNG and Pacific Island nations. North Queensland has long established relationships with Western Pacific neighbours in education and training of health and medical professionals through James Cook University (JCU). JCU has active collaborations with universities and Ministries of Health in PNG, the Solomon Islands and Fiji in health and medical workforce capacity building. In medicine, the recent delivery of additional ­­medical school places by the Federal Government has enabled JCU to establish a full medical course based in Cairns, in addition to Townsville. The university’s expertise and delivery of courses in tropical and remote medical, nursing and health offers material relevant capacity-building opportunities for the Western Pacific.

Both JCU and CQU as well as TAFE Queensland have long-established programs of engagement in the Pacific. JCU has the highest rate for students travelling to the Indo Pacific (60%, compared with a national average of 49%) and both universities have active New Colombo Plan engagement.  Amongst other global relationships, TAFE has strategic partners in PNG, the Solomon Islands, Nauru and Fiji and leads the Australia Pacific Training Coalition.

Australia’s Step-Up to the Pacific program, which sees engagement in the Pacific as one of the highest priorities of Government, is tied to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and commits Australia to a more ambitious level of Pacific engagement.4 The Pacific nations have identified a number of challenges in regard to pursuing economic growth. These include unreliable telecommunications networks; skill shortages; security concerns; and control of fisheries, their most prolific natural resource.

While the Office of the Pacific has been tasked with overseeing Australia’s Pacific Engagement Strategy, Cairns already has strong established networks with Pacific nations, together with expertise in working with dispersed populations and tropical climates. The city is therefore well placed to facilitate the administration of the next phase of security, education, health, trade, and investment conversations in the region


Establishing a regional pacific hub

Recently, growing tensions between the US and China have elevated the strategic importance of the Pacific, and Australia is more than ever a frontline player in terms of engagement and development of the region. Increased emphasis on the region is largely due to tensions around trade agreements, which reflect strong economic growth in the Pacific. In November 2020, China signed an MOU with Western Province in PNG to build a $204m fish processing plant less than 200km from the Australian border, a move that raised concerns over Australian border security. However, in the case of China, trade agreements are linked to repayable loans, which appear beyond the capacity of Pacific nations as developing economies with scarce national resources. This has increased the need to secure their fisheries, resource productivity, policing, and security.  This agreement was followed by the bilateral security cooperation pact between China and the Solomon Islands in early 2022.

Evolving geopolitical tensions in the region have led to a number of significant collaborations in the Pacific. These include a bilateral agreement between the US and Australia to reinstate the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, and a quadrilateral partnership between Australia, Japan, the US, and India to mobilise infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, Australia has established a $2bn Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, signalling the significance of the future economic partnership. 4 As well, commitments to form bilateral security treaties in the Pacific, notably with PNG and Vanuatu, have marked recent negotiations. On the back of these collaborations and negotiations, the Pacific is a region that has undergone and is undergoing profound change. This will be further accelerated through the establishment of the PACER Plus free trade agreement, through which 14 countries (including Australia) are collectively focussed on facilitating trade to strengthen the Pacific’s global position.


Next Steps

Cairns is already home to many of the Commonwealth’s Pacific engagement initiatives, covering security, education, economic development, infrastructure, financing, foreign affairs, and trade. Establishing an operational headquarters of the Office of the Pacific in Cairns will enable Australia to build stronger relationships with our Pacific neighbours, providing a more coordinated approach and better value for existing budgeted measures. For example:


The Cairns Marine Precinct is home to HMAS Cairns, one of only five naval bases in Australia, and is the ideal base for OPV and Border Force vessel sustainment and maintenance, the Pacific Maritime Security Program, and the Pacific Mobile Training Team. Under the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act (2018) the Cairns port is a critical national infrastructure asset.


With the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) headquartered in Cairns, the structure exists to either manage or co-locate the $2bn Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) from the region. Cairns is also supported by direct flights and shipping links to and from Pacific nations.


Cairns is the ideal base for elite athlete training camps associated with the Australia-Pacific Sports Linkages Program. It has strong links through the Pacific Games and provides the perfect base for hosting or co-hosting future Pacific Games. It would also be an ideal location for a Pacific training hub for the 2032 Olympics. The Prime Minister recently lent his support to having a National Rugby League team based in PNG.2


Creating an organisational hub in Cairns for the program would be a natural fit, linking agricultural and hospitality employers with around 22,000 available workers.


Strong alignment exists between Cairns’ tertiary institutions and the Australia Pacific Training Coalition, with structures in place to administer the Australia-University of the South Pacific partnership worth $84m over six years (2019-24). With a strong record of teaching and research collaborations with universities and government across the Tropics, and active participation in the Australia Award and New Colombo Plan scholarship and mobility program to the Solomon Islands, PNG, Vanuatu, French Polynesia and Samoa, JCU is positioned for increased engagement throughout the Asia Pacific. Cairns also offers essential marine training through its TAFE Great Barrier Reef International Marine College, which provides the chance to contribute to the development of South Pacific nations’ fisheries control and security.


Cairns is home to the Exchange Innovation and Information Centre (EiiC), which works in partnership with PNG to promote business and educational links between Cairns, PNG, and the Pacific. The EiiC is unique within Australia and houses the offices of Tradelinked Cairns PNG Pacific, and of PNG National and Provincial agencies. Cairns also hosts 12 Foreign Consulates, and through existing business links is engaged with and supports the Pacific Labour Scheme.


Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service, in partnership with JCU, is established as a world leader in tropical health and diseases, knowledge that is vital to our Pacific neighbours. Through its medical and allied health disciplines, JCU has already established research relationships with the University of the South Pacific, Fiji National University, and the PNG Institute of Medical Research, and capacity building programs with University of PNG and Divine Word University (PNG)  The new full medical degree on offer at JCU Cairns offers a material opportunity to build critical capacity in PNG, and provides globally relevant training to deliver a medical and health workforce for Australia and the Asia-Pacific that is prepared to handle the region’s health challenges.

Our Recommendation

  • That, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Federal Government establishes an operational headquarters of the Office of the Pacific in Cairns to drive the implementation of Australia’s Pacific Engagement Strategy from northern Australia.

  • That the Federal Government formally designates Cairns as Australia’s northern hub for delivering the Step-Up to the Pacific program.

  • That the Federal Government funds additional places for the new six-year undergraduate medical program at Cairns’ JCU Campus as part of long-term capacity building with PNG and the Pacific.

  • That the New Colombo Plan and the Australia Awards continue to enable university students at both JCU and CQU to engage in high-quality industry-based experiences in countries of high political importance to Northern Australia while offering access to university programs in Cairns which offer specific areas of research to students from neighbouring Pacific nations.

  • That the Federal Government, through diplomatic and trade support, promotes JCU’s international expertise in tropical health and medicine/workforce development, aquaculture, disaster resilience, and ecology and environmental management focussing on an uplift in capability in the Asia Pacific and Tropics more broadly.

  • That the Federal Government provides $1.5m for developing a comprehensive strategy to identify and maximise opportunities for Cairns as part of delivering its Step-Up to the Pacific agenda.


Westoby et al, file/0036/1197189/Pacific-islands-tourism-during-COVID-19.pdf

Prime Minister Morrison, 8 November 2018: https://www.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Fact Sheet: Stepping-Up Australia’s Pacific Engagement, November 2018