By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, Aug 13 (Reuters) - China said on Monday that it would host an envoy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and consider another visit by members of the opposition, as Beijing steps up its diplomacy to help resolve the crisis gripping the country.
The West and many in the Arab world have scolded China, along with its ally Russia, for vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions designed to exert pressure on Assad.
China has said it is simply trying to prevent more violence. Opposition sources say at least 18,000 people have been killed since rebels began fighting to oust Assad in March last year.
To deflect criticism and show it is trying to develop a political solution, Beijing has sent its own envoys to Syria and has already been visited by both Syrian government and opposition delegations.
In its latest effort, China's foreign ministry said Assad's envoy, Bouthaina Shaaban, would begin a visit to China on Tuesday and meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
The ministry added that China was also considering inviting members of the Syrian opposition.
"To promote the political solution to the Syria problem, China has always actively balanced its work between the Syrian government and the opposition," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a brief statement on the ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
Qin reiterated China's call for the "practical implementation" of Kofi Annan's peace plan, which is now essentially dead, and for "an immediate ceasefire and for the violence to stop; for the effective protection of civilians and to defuse the crisis through political dialogue."
"Receiving Shaaban in China is part of the above-mentioned work by the Chinese side," Qin said. "Meanwhile, China is also considering inviting Syrian opposition groups in the near term to China."
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China was keen to show it was not taking sides in the Syrian conflict.
"Russia has never publicly invited the opposition in Syria. They've invited the government. But China, with some prominence, has invited both sides. This is the difference between China and Russia," Shi said.
"The Syria government is more vulnerable than before. The opposition groups have gained newfound support from the West, but they're also fragile. China has a pressing need to talk to the two sides. The situation now is nearing an end," he added.
China has repeatedly expressed its opposition to outside intervention in troubled countries as well to any kind of "regime change" or political solution which is not broadly supported by the Syrian people.
Yet last year, China, along with Russia, abstained from a vote on a Security Council resolution authorising a NATO air campaign over Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was battling insurgents who eventually toppled him.
Beijing later regretted backing the Security Council resolution on Gaddafi's government which led to NATO expanding intervention that eventually helped topple him, analysts say.
Still, China wooed the Libyan opposition during that conflict, and relations with the new Libyan government have generally been smooth since Gaddafi's overthrow.