By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's state-run media on Monday defended the government's rejection of a U.N. resolution pressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon power, saying Western intervention in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq showed the error of forced regime change.
The People's Daily, the top newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, set out in a commentary the clearest defence of the decision to join Russia at the weekend in vetoing a draft U.N. resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Assad to quit after months of worsening bloodshed.
The newspaper suggested that Chinese distrust of Western intervention lay behind the veto, which drew condemnation from Western governments with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling it a "travesty."
"The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and numbers of civilian casualties keep rising," the newspaper, which echoes government thinking, said in the commentary.
"Vetoing the draft Security Council resolution does not mean we are giving free rein to letting this heart-rending state of affairs continue."
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 conflicting Chinese and Western positions on Syria exposed a more general rift about how China should use its rising influence and whether it should foresake its long-standing, albeit unevenly applied, principle of non-interference in other countries' domestic conflicts.
Russia and China's veto came a day after activists say that Syrian forces bombarded a district of the city of Homs, killing more than 200 people in the worst bloodshed of the 11-month Syrian uprising.
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.
But China, not its Western critics, acted "responsibly" for the sake of the Syrian people, the People's Daily said in the commentary.
"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," said the paper.
China's siding with Russia over Syria could add to irritants with the United States. Vice President Xi Jinping is due to visit there next week, burnishing his credentials as the Communist Party's likely next top leader.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said she was "disgusted" by Russia and China's vetoes.
"Any further bloodshed that flows will be on their hands," she said.
China and the United States have also sparred over Iran, which faces tightened Western sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.
The People's Daily laid bare broader Chinese concerns about U.S.-backed action in the Arab world and beyond. China is one of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members that hold the power to veto resolutions.
In March, China abstained from a Security Council vote that authorised Western military intervention in Libya.
The resolution became the basis for a 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.
"I think that, whatever the (Syria) resolution may have said on paper, both China and Russia worried that it could have laid the way for legitimising 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.
"Previously, on the Libya issue, China did not exercise a veto, and as a result the Western powers used armed force beyond the U.N. mandate," Guo, an expert on the Middle East, told Reuters.
"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," he said, also citing jitters about Western intentions towards Iran.
The people's Daily cited Libya as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.
"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?" it said.
Other Chinese newspapers also rejected Western criticism of China's veto, including the military's Liberation Army Daily and the Global Times, a popular tabloid with an unabashedly nationalist view on international affairs.
"This vote by China was above all a vote on trends on the Middle East," the Global Times said in an editorial.
"The Chinese people are starting to believe that Western opinion is habitually hostile to China and there's no use at all in trying to curry favour."
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Robert Birsel)