Lessons from Lebanon
There was little Beijing could do after Israeli bombs killed a Chinese UN observer in southern Lebanon. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said that 'the Middle East people's blood should stop flowing', but those were about as strong as his words got.
For China, the event echoed the American attack on the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, during Nato bombing in 1999.
Stronger comments came from other sources. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the attacks on the UN observer post were 'apparently deliberate'. The UN's top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, called Israel's invasion 'disproportionate' and 'a violation of international humanitarian law'.
According to the World Health Organisation, over 600,000 Lebanese have been forced to abandon their homes. The death toll, mostly of innocent civilians, is already past 600.
The message of the American-supported Israeli action is clear: rules of international law are observable when they suit Israel's immediate interests.
When inconvenient, they can be replaced by brinkmanship and military unilateralism.
Israel's invasion of Lebanon should not have been a surprise for Mr Li. For months, the Beijing diplomatic community has been anticipating an American-supported, unilateral Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. It has been the talk of the diplomatic cocktail circuit.
Investment bankers from London to Zurich have been discussing oil prices breaking US$80 a barrel in that event. Some predict prices passing US$100 a barrel by early next year if a larger Middle East war erupts.
This, of course, would be good news for the oil cronies of US President George W. Bush, but bad for China with its reliance on oil imports.
Beijing think-tanks will be concerned that the national economy could be disrupted by a Middle East military crisis and subsequent oil-price shocks. They will be pondering whether this could lead to the nation's collapse.
This may all be just conspiracy-theory talk reflecting paranoia in Zhongnanhai. On the other hand, nobody in Beijing seems surprised at what is happening.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: 'A durable solution will be one that strengthens the forces of peace and democracy in the region.' But such words - floating the fantasy of American-style democracy as a panacea for the problems of the Middle East - are only a delaying tactic.
The Israeli invasion could be halted at any time, with one word from Washington. The United States supports Israel with annual grants of US$3 billion, of which US$2.2 billion consists of outright military support. The American taxpayer is ultimately picking up the bill for this invasion of Lebanon.
Diplomats in Beijing had expected Israel to attack Iran using a sophisticated surgical approach with no ground troops, because Iran would be too formidable to attack on the ground - unlike Iraq, which was crippled by years of economic embargoes.
But somebody in Washington gave the matter some thought, and the decision was taken to attack the weaker state - Lebanon - bypassing Iran for the moment. This reinforces an emerging pattern: invade weakling states and negotiate with those that may have strength.
Do you remember when Saddam Hussein told the UN that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction? Then America and Britain immediately invaded the country.
Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il declared he had nuclear weapons, and America patiently joined the six-party negotiations in Beijing.
So the lesson for China is clear if it wants to preserve peace in the region. For Mr Li, the best strategy in China's interest is to keep those six-party talks going, for as long as possible.
Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation