By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China defended its rejection of a U.N. resolution pressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon power, with a top state newspaper saying Western intervention in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq exposed the risks of forced regime change.
China said its blocking, along with Russia, of the U.N. resolution which would have backed an Arab plan urging Assad to quit, did not amount to supporting the Syrian leader. Activists accused his forces of bombarding part of the city of Homs before the U.N. vote in the worst bloodshed of the 11-month uprising.
"On the issue of Syria, China is not playing favorites and nor is it deliberately opposing anyone, but rather is upholding an objective and fair stance and a responsible position," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing.
Western powers that initiated the U.N. Security Council vote on their draft resolution were culpable for not going far enough in seeking compromise, said Liu.
"Our goal is for the Syrian people to escape violence, conflict and flames of war, and not to make the problem even more complicated," he said.
"Unfortunately, the countries that proposed the resolution forced a vote despite the serious differences among various sides, and this approach was not conducive to the unity and authority of Security Council and is not conducive to the appropriate resolution of the problem. Therefore, China voted against the draft resolution," Liu added.
China's explanation is unlikely to mollify critics in Western capitals and the Middle East.
The conflicting Chinese and Western positions have exposed a wider rift about how China should use its growing influence and whether it should forsake its long-standing, albeit unevenly applied, principle of non-interference in other countries' domestic conflicts.
China's siding with Russia over Syria could add to irritants with the United States. Vice President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party's likely next leader, is due to visit there next week.
"Whatever the (Syria) resolution may have said on paper, both China and Russia worried that it could have laid the way for legitimizing another armed intervention," said Guo Xian'gang, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, a government-run think tank in Beijing.
China is one of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members that hold the power to veto resolutions.
Russia and China's veto on Saturday came a day after activists said Syrian forces killed more than 200 people in Homs. Syrian forces bombarded the city again on Monday, killing 50 people, the opposition said.
All 13 other members of the Security Council voted for the resolution, which also called for a withdrawal of Syrian troops from towns and the beginning of a transition to democracy.
Dozens of Syrian and Libyan demonstrators threw rocks, eggs and tomatoes at the Chinese embassy in Tripoli, where they also broke windows and sprayed graffiti on walls in a show of disgust at the veto.
Asked about criticisms, such as those from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who said more bloodshed would be on Russian and Chinese hands, Liu said: "China does not accept such accusations."
"FRESH SEEDS OF DISASTER"
The People's Daily, China's top party newspaper, also defended the veto, and suggested that Chinese distrust of Western intervention lay behind it.
"Currently, the situation in Syria is extremely complex. Simplistically supporting one side and suppressing the other might seem a helpful way of turning things around, but in fact it would be sowing fresh seeds of disaster," the newspaper, which echoes government thinking, said in the commentary.
The author of the commentary used the pen name "Zhong Sheng", which can mean "voice of China" and is often used to give the government's position on foreign policy.
The People's Daily spelled out broader Chinese concerns about U.S.-backed action in the Arab world and beyond, citing the campaign in Libya. In March, China abstained from a Security Council vote that authorized NATO intervention in Libya.
The resolution became the basis for the NATO air campaign that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, despite misgivings from Beijing and Moscow about the expanded campaign, which they said went beyond the resolution.
"Libya offers a negative case study. NATO abused the Security Council resolution about establishing a no-fly zone, and directly provided firepower assistance to one side," said the People's Daily.
"The calamities of Iraq and Afghanistan should be ample to wipe clear the world's eyes. Forceful prevention of a humanitarian disaster sounds filled with a sense of justice and responsibility," the paper said.
"But are not the unstoppable attacks and explosions over a decade after regime change a humanitarian disaster?"
Guo, the Beijing-based researcher, who is an expert on the Middle East, said the Libya experience probably still stung Chinese officials, who also worry about possible Western or Israeli military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.
"If the Libya model was applied to Syria, then it could be applied again and again, so China and Russia were more resolute this time," said Guo.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)