United Kingdom U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, far left, and United States U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice confer during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nation on July 19, 2012. Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution threatening non-military sanctions against Syria. (Kathy Willens/AP)

As the fight for control of Damascus escalates, China appears to be gambling that even if Syria’s government falls, respect for Beijing’s “principled position” against outside interference will outweigh any lingering hostility from the Arab street.

The Syrian crisis finds China once again refusing to break ties with an authoritarian Arab government that is using military force to try to suppress a popular rebellion. Since the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011, Chinese diplomacy has been caught flat-footed, torn between Beijing’s stated aim of “noninterference” and the rising tide of public discontent in the region.

On Thursday, China joined Russia in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria — the third such double veto of a resolution targeting President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The action drew international condemnation, including fierce criticism from some Chinese Internet users who accused their leaders of once again being on the wrong side of history.

“As a Chinese citizen, I only represent myself and apologize to the Syrian people,” one user posted Friday on his microblogging account.“I will always stand together with the Syrian people.”

China’s position mostly reflects the authorities’ own nervousness. Beijing’s Communist rulers also used soldiers and tanks to maintain power, killing hundreds of pro-democracy student demonstrators who had converged on Tiananmen Square in 1989. At the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests, Chinese security forces cracked down on possible copycat protests here, arresting dozens of dissidents and banning Internet search terms such as “Egypt,” “Tunisia” and “jasmine,” the flower that became the symbol of the Arab revolt.

Chinese leaders were also unnerved when the United States, Britain and France used the label of humanitarian intervention to set up a no-fly zone and launch airstrikes against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, clearing the way for a ragtag rebel army to topple his government. Since then, China has adamantly opposed any form of “regime change” imposed by Western powers.

To China’s rulers, the Syrian sanctions resolution appeared to be a pretext for another U.S.-led military excursion. “They genuinely have a feeling that there’ll be mission creep, that this is the thin end of the wedge,” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat and China expert who heads the Asia program at Chatham House, a London think tank.

Brown also said Chinese officials feel freer to exercise their Security Council veto because “Russia has given them diplomatic cover, so they’re not on their own.”

China’s official media on Friday staunchly defended the veto, while acknowledging that Assad’s days in power appear numbered.

“It’s likely that the Assad administration will be overthrown,” said an editorial in the Global Times newspaper, which is owned by the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, and whose views often reflect the party’s official stance. “But China does not necessarily need to change its policy and principle of opposing foreign military intervention in Syria.”

The editorial elicited harsh comments from readers.

“The Syrians will remember the hands [China and Russia] that supported the butcher, just like the Libyans,” said one reader, commenting under the name “Kongzi.” “Your Iranian friends will be next. The democratic dominoes are coming your way.”

Another reader, “Rooky,” said: “The Syrian government is killing its own people, because of one man, Assad, who wants to hold on to power. . . . Two nations, China and Russia, are again on the wrong side of history.”

Unlike Russia, which is a major military supplier to the Assad government and uses a naval base for its Black Sea fleet at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus, China’s ties are not as deep and mostly economic. Chinese state-owned oil companies are active in Syria, and Syria imports more than $2 billion worth of goods from China.

China and Russia also share a concern about Muslim extremism within their borders — in China’s case in the restive
Xinjiang region, which has seen
a series of low-level attacks on government facilities and security forces by members of the ethnic Uighur minority seeking independence from Chinese rule.

But analysts said China’s stance in the current crisis is driven mainly by the desire to avoid another precedent for foreign intervention.

“The bottom line for China is noninterference in another country’s internal affairs,” said Yin Gang, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the deputy secretary general of China’s Middle East Institute, adding that if there is Western-led intervention in Syria, “what Arab country will be next?”

“I think some Arab countries will understand China’s position in the future,” he said.

Liu Liu contributed to this report.