China has been busy lately.
In Iran, Afghanistan, and even in Yemen, it is hard to argue that China isn’t becoming a stabilizing influence in some of its global endeavors, though both to what degree and its motivations are open to debate.
Israel and China have also witnessed an age of improved relations and trade, after years where China limited its interactions with Israel so as not to anger its Arab-Muslim allies.
There is heated debate whether the deal with Iran will turn out well or not.
Yet there would have been no effective sanctions regime in the first place and Iran would not have made any concessions, which adequate or not everyone agrees it has at least made on paper, without China.
Why did China help push Iran toward a deal? The worst case scenario is it was only because Iran, under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had offended China, attacking it on certain populist economic grievances and embarrassed it by rejecting its suggested nuclear deal compromises, which had favored Iran.
In this narrative, China’s support for sanctions was fleeting and it has been pushing hard to reopen full trade.
The Iran-China economic relationship is staggering.
China is Iran’s largest trade partner with a 2011 RAND report estimating full trade value at $39 billion.
Shortly before the deal, China had signed an economic agreement with Iran to boost exports of condensate (with overlap, but not the same as crude oil) from Iran to China to 3 million barrels per month or 100,000 barrels per day from 2 million barrels per month – assuming the sanctions are removed.
Estimates are that once sanctions are fully removed, the numbers could reach 600,000 barrels per day of condensate, above even the presanctions number of 555,000 barrels per day.
Thus, China maybe endorsed sanctions as a temporary punishment and then wanted a deal as soon as possible, without caring about preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, to cash in economically.
But Iran is not China’s biggest partner and this perspective misses that US-Chinese economic relations dwarf China’s relations with Iran, with US imports from China in 2011 in the same report hitting $330b.
Yes, China acts as a rival and pushes back against the US in various global contexts, but it consciously avoids a breakdown in relations and coordinates large aspects of its policy with the US because it is also dependent on the US to a certain degree.
So China may even for real be committed to limiting nuclear proliferation of its own accord, but at the very least reaching a deal that somewhat limited Iran’s rush to the bomb may have become in China’s interest, as a project where it could reap some benefits in US-relations – a point it emphasized when the deal was sealed.
In Afghanistan, China has been working with the US on nailing down a peace settlement with the Taliban since December 2014.
This, after several US attempts have failed for well over a decade.
In February, it became clear that part of the strategy was for China to push Pakistan to pressure the Taliban into serious negotiations, since Pakistani intelligence is part of the Taliban’s lifeblood.
The US has tried this strategy, but failed, possibly because its relations with Pakistan range between very poor to at least very complicated.
In contrast, China has close relations and powerful influence with Pakistan; has had contacts with the Taliban since 2002 and recently hosted a Taliban delegation.
Again, China could have ulterior interests.
It may only really care about exerting power over that part of Asia and reducing US influence.
China is currently trying to expand membership in an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to balance the economic influence of traditional US-European dominated banking institutions.
Or it may just be worried about its own stability and may be seeking cover for its controversial crackdown on terrorism and Uyghur emigrés in the Xinjiang region, who it has claimed, obtain jihadi training in the Middle East and with that region sharing a small border with Afghanistan.
But even if China has ulterior motives, it is new for such motives to lead it to act as a force encouraging stability.
Another example of China at least looking like it wants to contribute to a better world order by assisting others was the April 2 first ever Chinese-facilitated evacuation of foreign nationals, from Yemen.
China sent its Linyi frigate which rescued 225 nationals of 10 countries in Yemen including; 176 Pakistanis, 29 Ethiopians, 5 Singaporeans, 3 Italians, 3 Germans, 4 Polish, 1 Irish, 2 from England, 1 Canadian and 1 Yemenite.
What China’s motivations are and how far this new trend will go remain shrouded in the same mystery that characterizes much of Chinese foreign policy, but it is an important development to follow going forward, and could also, if properly channeled, yield significant benefits for US and Israeli policy.Reuters contributed to this story.