Pacific Engagement Strategy

Briefing Note Summary

Cairns is the ideal strategic hub for the implementation of Australia’s Pacific Engagement Strategy.

The ambition to establish Cairns as the Pacific hub for Australia is aligned with the Federal Government’s own agenda, meeting the needs of the Step-Up to the Pacific program.

Cairns has the geographic adjacency, structures, and relationships to be the operational base to deliver many of the programs of the Office of the Pacific.

The Issue

Strategic geographic links

Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated in January 2019 that “Cairns [is] a Pacific capital of Australia, a tropical capital of Australia. Cairns is very important to our engagement with the Pacific1”. As such, Cairns is Australia’s natural home for implementing much of the national Pacific Engagement Strategy, providing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Office of the Pacific with close direct air and sea access to Pacific nations. This enables stronger partnerships for economic growth, regional security, and free trade.

The establishment of Cairns as the Pacific hub for Australia is aligned with the Federal Government’s own agenda. Cairns is home to a multicultural society and with 10,000+ Papua New Guinea (PNG) nationals residing in the region, it is already a base for Australia’s participation in the development of cultural and education research and teaching, health care, marine training, logistic support including maintenance and enhancement, and security support 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 (PMTS) to TAFE Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef International Marine College (GBRIMC), highlighting the close ties the region has with the Pacific.

The impacts of COVID-19 have been greatly felt by Pacific nations, with their heavy reliance on tourism as a key pillar of economic development2. To address the economic challenges of our Pacific neighbours, as well as the workforce shortages created in Australia due to the pandemic, the Pacific Labour Scheme has become an important program for both nations. It helps address labour force shortages in Australia whilst supporting economic prosperity in the participating countries and helps Pacific economies recover from the impacts of COVID-19. With its pre-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$3.1B in investment per year3. While Australia has consistently been the largest investor in the region, with a record $1.44B in development assistance 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.

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 engagement4. The Pacific nations themselves have identified a number of challenges in regard to pursuing economic growth. These include unreliable telecommunications networks; shortages around skills and expertise; concerns regarding law and order (security); and control of fisheries, their most prolific natural resource.

While the newly formed Office of the Pacific has been tasked with overseeing Australia’s Pacific Engagement Strategy, Cairns already has strong established networks and links with nations of the Pacific, 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

Over the past several years, growing tensions between the United States and China have elevated the strategic importance of the Pacific, and Australia is now 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. As recently as November 2020, China signed an MOU with Western Province in Papua New Guinea to build a $204M fish processing plant less than 200km from the Australian border, a move that also raises concerns over Australian border security. However, in the case of China, trade agreements are linked to repayable loans, and as developing economies with scarce national resources, they appear to be beyond the capacity of Pacific nations to service. This has increased the need to secure their fisheries, resource productivity, policing, and security.

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 in PNG, and a quadrilateral partnership between Australia, Japan, the United States, and India to mobilise infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, Australia has established a $2B Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP), signalling the significance of the future economic partnership4.

On the back of these collaborations, 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 signatory countries (including Australia) are collectively focussed on facilitating trade to strengthen the global position of the Pacific.

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 strategic approach and better value for existing budgeted measures. For example:

  • Defence and Marine – 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 Programme, and the Pacific Mobile Training Team. Under the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act (2018) the Cairns port is a critical national infrastructure asset.
  • Education – Strong alignment exists between Cairns’ tertiary institutions and the Australia Pacific Training Coalition, with structures already in place to administer the new Australia-University of the South Pacific partnership worth $84M over six years (2019-24). Research projects already exist and there is scope for further engagement. Cairns also offers essential marine training through its Great Barrier Reef International Marine College, which provides the opportunity to contribute to the development of South Pacific nations’ fisheries control and security.
  • Infrastructure and Development – With the Northern Australian Infrastructure Fund headquartered in Cairns, the structure exists to either manage or co-locate the $2B 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.
  • Sport – Cairns is the ideal base for elite athlete training camps associated with the Australia-Pacific Sports Linkages Program. It has strong links established 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.
  • Pacific Labour Scheme – 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.
  • Government and Trade – Cairns is home to the Exchange Innovation and Information Centre (EiiC), which works in partnership with PNG Government 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.
  • Health – Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service, in partnership with James Cook University (JCU), is established as a world leader in tropical health and diseases, knowledge that is vital to our Pacific neighbours. And through its Division of Tropical Health and Medicine, JCU has already established research relationships with the University of the South Pacific and Fiji National University.

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 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