South Africa – at least officially – identifies itself completely as an African country. Australia does not enjoy the luxury – or is it the paucity – of such a dominant identity. Australia was a country of multiple identities, some of which it shared with South Africa, the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Richard Marles, said on a recent visit to South Africa.

“Are we an Asian country? Yes. That is absolutely a part of Australia’s identity in the year 2013. We live in the Asian time zone; our economic development is with Asia, our key development assistance is with Asia. So there’s no doubt that a key facet of our identity today is of being an Asian country.”

But does Australia see itself as purely an Asian country? “No, there are many facets to who we are. I don’t think its about trying to be exclusive in the way one defines oneself. We also see ourselves as a Pacific country… having a significant role within the Pacific among the Pacific island countries.

“We also see ourselves as being part of the English-speaking world, part of the Commonwealth and we have key relationships there. And the Commonwealth is a key part of our identity and that is something I’m sure we share with South Africa.

“We see ourselves as an activist middle power. A member of the Group of 20 and try to play a constructive role in relation to that. Again that’s something we share with South Africa. And increasingly we want to identify ourselves as an Indian Ocean country and one which looks westward.”

Marles also identified another key relationship with the US, which is Australia’s main security partner. That, along with its cultural traditions, seems to make Australia also a Western country.

Australia is not alone in its rather complex predicament of having China as its main trading partner and the US as its main security ally. Japan and South Korea shared the same circumstances, Marles said. With most of its main cities on its eastern seaboard, it is not surprising that Australia has historically leaned towards the Pacific.

But its more recent decision also to look West has given it a real interest in the Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC) which is another reason to strengthen relations with South Africa, another founding member of this organisation of countries on the Indian Ocean shores which was formed in 1997.

He agreed that for the past16 years IOR-ARC had merely been ticking over, “without putting many runs on the board”. But he said Australia and South Africa shared an interest in turning it into “a real Indian Ocean community”.

When Australia takes over the chair later this year, it plans to give it a more practical, narrower focus “and not spread the agenda so thin that nothing happens”. That would start with the Indian Ocean itself, increasing co-operation in fighting piracy and improving security more generally and facilitating trade, for example by making shipping easier though improving harbour operations.

Marles said Australia also wanted to expand membership of the IOR-ARC as much as possible and so was pleased that the US had just come on board as a dialogue partner. “That potentially could have been an area of dispute when you think about the IOR-ARC membership. But it wasn’t. And that was a good step forward.

“The more that we can get the major powers of the world associating with IOR-ARC the better.”

Rivalry seems to be growing between China and the US, especially in the Pacific where China is increasingly clashing with strong US allies like Japan, over disputed islands in the South China Sea, particularly. That rivalry could spill into the Indian Ocean too.

“We want to do whatever we can to contribute to America-China relations and to contribute to whatever international architecture that promotes that,” Marles said.

“We’ve been very active in seeing both China and the US participate in the East Asia summit, which they are now doing.

“And that does create a table around which both countries are sitting and talking. And when you look at issues around the South China Sea that is really important. Australia thinks it’s important that we don’t construct a world which has an inevitability about competitiveness and contest between the US and China. I just don’t think that’s how the world is nor does it have to be. And those sentiments are just as valid in the Indian Ocean as they are in the Pacific.”

The IOR-ARC has reinforced the already strong bond between Australia and Africa. “There’s no doubt that the place Africa holds in our world view is growing,” Marles said. Australian companies – especially mining corporations, but also agricultural companies – are present in force. Australian aid to Africa had also increased significantly.

“But our deepest relationship is with South Africa,” starting with the “huge emotional connection in Australia with South Africa”, which was forged by the role Australia played in the anti-apartheid movement and now its support for democratic South Africa.

“We felt honoured that Nelson Mandela came to Australia soon after his release.”

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the giant radio telescope project, is a potent symbol of growing relations between the two countries. A year ago Australia and South Africa were competing fiercely to host it. Having won the bid jointly, they are now working ever more closely on it.

“Having gone through the process of bidding, we’re believers. This is arguably the great scientific endeavour being undertaken by the global community today. And we’re both playing a role – though, let me be clear, South Africa is going to be playing a bigger role than Australia.”

He said South Africa was showing itself as up to the task. “We can all absolutely make this work. It’s going to open up understanding of the universe that we’ve never had before. It’s going to lead us literally to new worlds.” Marles said the SKA and the new optical telescopes, which would start working at the end of this decade in Chile, would be able to identify if life existed on other planets.

“In the course of human history, that’s a hugely significant moment. And I think the capacity of this to inspire a sense of wonder and science among our youth, for this to provide a sense of transformation of our own technological capacity and indeed our information technology (IT) capacity – because the IT component around the SKA is mind-boggling – it’s going to have a transformational effect on this country as it has on Australia.”

Australia is a major mining country, with “key levels” of investment in Africa and particularly South Africa. Is it concerned about the current saga around mining policy in South Africa?

Marles answered diplomatically that a favourable investment climate was important for both Australia and South Africa.

“Getting public policy right around mining… is not an easy task. We’ve grappled with it in Australia for many decades. Each country is going to do it in its own way. But I think Australian investors still look upon South Africa positively and we would hope that investment continues. “.

He was not sure if it was true, as suggested, that South Africa had been inspired by Australia’s mining policy – especially in increasing taxation on mineral resources.

“The problem with mining is that while it’s a very investment-rich industry and a very lucrative industry, it’s not a jobs-intensive industry. So spreading the benefits of mining broadly, across the community, is actually a hard public policy exercise. And every country struggles with it.”

Marles also said both Australia and South Africa were concerned that the trade between them had declined. “And we want to see how we can reinvigorate that, at a government to government level.”

Australia has just acquired a new vehicle to help it play its multiple roles and realise its multiple identities and that is a two-year seat on the UN Security Council.

During its election campaign for the seat last year, Australia had said it recognised that 70 percent of the resolutions at the Security Council were about Africa. And so it wanted to listen carefully to African countries about how they felt Australia should be exercising its duties as a member of the Security Council, Marles said.

And Ebrahim had welcomed Australia’s election and what it intended to do with the seat, he added.

“We hope what we bring to the table is technical expertise, competence, fair-mindedness… and when issues do get bogged down and there are intransigent disputes, a sense of practicality about how you might be able to work around the edges.”

He and Ebrahim had discussed the Syrian crisis and the lack of consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council about how to deal with it.

“But in the absence of consensus, we’re very keen to promote access for medical supplies into Syria and getting recognition from both sides for that to occur.

“Which isn’t going to resolve the dispute but it might save a lot of lives along the way. So that’s the kind of practical sense we bring to bear.”

Marles said he thought South Africa and Africa appreciated the way Australia had engaged with disputes in its immediate region, the Pacific and southeast Asia, especially the leading role it had played in peacekeeping missions in Solomon Islands, Bougainville and East Timor. Australia also had a history of involvement in peacekeeping missions in Africa.

But Marles stressed that Australia had come onto the Security Council – and he had come to South Africa and to Africa - to listen and to learn.

Especially from South Africa, because it had just completed two years on the council and because its views were important globally and in Africa “incredibly important”.

“We’re

never going to agree all the time but that’s okay. Hundred percent agreement is never going to happen.

“Nor does it define the health of the discourse. What defines it is the willingness to engage, and I think there is a real willingness,” Marles said.