Australia has no international land borders but only just. Queensland’s Saibai Island is only 4km from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and about 150km from Indonesia. The Torres Strait makes Australia an island continent but is in effect a 150km north-south line of reefs and islands through which there are only a few narrow, barely-navigable east-west channels.

West of Torres Strait is the Indian Ocean while East is the Pacific; uniquely among Australian States, Queensland borders both oceans.  If north is PNG and Indonesia, to Queensland’s east are many smaller island nations with the nearer, at about 1800kms, being the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. In this, PNG is larger than New Zealand in both land mass (70% larger) and population (5 million versus well over 9 million). The population of all the other Pacific islands combined is about 2.3 million.

This geographic setting is important when considering Queensland’s defence and security issues.  Geography determines where threats may come through and shapes responses. The major contemporary threats concern transnational and organised crime, and biosecurity.

Crime is dominated by drug trafficking across the Pacific’s porous maritime borders. Biosecurity involves mainly animal and plant threats to Queensland’s agricultural sector coming by air or sea, including on illegal foreign fishing vessels. In this, Australia has a complex border treaty with PNG that allows some 13 PNG villages in the Torres Strait traditional access rights. This deliberately permeable border is regularly monitored by on-ground personnel, radar, naval patrol boats, contracted helicopters and surveillance aircraft.

Defence Posture   

Queensland’s proximity to PNG, West Papua and the other South West Pacific Islands has long shaped its strategic importance. This primary driver is complemented by Queensland having both a well-developed transport infrastructure and being able to provide extensive domestic support for local defence bases and regional operational deployments.

Army has a combined arms brigade in both Townsville (3rd) and Brisbane (7th) with a reserve brigade (11th) split between the two cities. Townsville also includes an amphibious light infantry battalion, an aviation regiment flying Taipans and Chinook helicopters, and elements of a logistics brigade. Brisbane has the regular army’s divisional headquarters with the Army aviation training base inland at Oakey.  

Air Force’s Amberley airbase is the largest in Australia with a squadron each of Super Hornet and Growler fighters, KC-30A air-refuelling tankers, and Spartan and Globemaster transport aircraft. Air Force also has a small number of units at Townsville and controls a bare base near Weipa. 

Navy’s Queensland presence is comparatively meagre, being centred on HMAS Cairns which has seven patrol boats and four hydrographic vessels homeported. HMAS Cairns also supports regional patrol boat training, maintenance and operations.

Queensland’s defence industry is doing well with the Rheinmetall manufacturing facility near Ipswich recently winning a major contract to supply eight-wheeled armoured vehicles to the German Army. Another win is Cairn’s Tropical Reef Shipyard conducting maintenance on the HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, British offshore patrol vessels now regularly rotating through the region. Less obvious but providing a stable foundation, is the ongoing significant defence industry work in maintaining defence equipment and facilities across Queensland and in delivering local base services.   

Future Problems

Looking forwards, transnational crime and biosecurity threats will remain.  The Navy’s new Evolved Cape-class patrol boats built by Austal south of Perth will replace the Armidale class and bring useful operational improvements. It seems likely that the contracted maritime air surveillance will expand in terms of frequency of coverage. In that regard, in 2020 Army operated its Shadow uncrewed aerial system in the Torres Strait perhaps indicating a future technology alternative.

The threat from natural disasters is expected to grow. Worryingly, the expectation is that compound disasters will become more common with major disasters occurring simultaneously or in close succession in Australia and the nearer region.  There will be a continuing and probably increasing need for Queensland-based army units, air force air transport squadrons and minor naval vessels to be involved in humanitarian and disaster response operations, at times of a large scale.

The greatest uncertainty is how China’s growing presence in PNG and the islands close to Queensland will play out. Today’s influx of Chinese business people have some distinct differences to earlier arrivals: they speak Mandarin (not Cantonese), work for Chinese state-owned enterprises, generally employ an all-Chinese workforce, stay apart from local society and place Chinese state interests over commercial concerns. 

The Solomons is the most uncertain from a security viewpoint given an emerging Chinese police presence and talk of a possible Chinese military base in the future. There is already more Chinese naval activity in the region albeit coming from a very low base. The United States is now taking an interest, signing a defence cooperation agreement with PNG and opening an embassy in Honiara. Distant geopolitical tensions are having an impact on the ground. 

Over the longer term, a Chinese company has proposed a fisheries complex at Daru Island in the eastern Torres Strait and about 100kms from Saibai Island.  While improbable, this would give China’s maritime fishing fleet an operating location close to Queensland.

Even so, while China seeks greater regional influence, Chinese grants and loans to the region have been steadily declining since 2016.  This decline seems the result of China’s financial problems, tighter central government control over state-owned enterprises, and Chinese companies finding the region a hard place to do business in.

Queensland’s defence and security concerns have always been shaped by its geography, particularly proximity to PNG. This influence will continue but with a newer concern being the evolution of China’s regional presence. The current disposition of land and air forces in Queensland seem appropriate. However, the small naval presence appears an anomaly and perhaps suggests an area where future expansion will be needed.   


Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow and the Griffith Asia Institute. This post is based on an article originally published in the 2022-23 WA Defence Review titled “Queensland: securing Australia’s North-Eastern Approaches,” pp. 154-157.