BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Monday called "totally unacceptable" U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's denunciation of its stand on Syria, and a top newspaper said that, after the Iraq war, Washington was "super arrogant" to claim to speak for Arab people.
China's angry words came after Clinton on Friday called the Chinese and Russian veto of a U.N. resolution on Syria "despicable."
"They are setting themselves not only against the Syrian people but also the entire Arab awakening," Clinton said of China and Russia, which have resisted Western and Arab calls to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
China's defense of its policy was also vehement.
"This is totally unacceptable for us," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing.
"China has always determined its stance on the Syrian issue proceeding from the peace and stability of Syria and the Middle East, and from protecting the long-term, fundamental interests of the Syrian and Arab peoples."
The spreading bloodshed in Syria, where government forces have been bombarding neighborhoods held by opposition forces, has turned into a broader test pitting Western powers against China and Russia over how forcefully the world should intervene in civil turmoil.
The People's Daily, the top newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, underscored that rift.
"The United States' motive in parading as a 'protector' of the Arab peoples is not difficult to imagine. The problem is, what moral basis does it have for this patronizing and egotistical super-arrogance and self-confidence?," said a commentary in the paper that cited the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"Even now, violence continues unabated in Iraq, and ordinary people enjoy no security. This alone is enough for us to draw a huge question mark over the sincerity and efficacy of U.S. policy," it said.
Beijing and Moscow are traditionally resistant to international intervention in domestic upheavals, and Russia has close ties with the Syrian government.
On February 5, China and Russia used their veto power as permanent members of the U.N Security Council to block a proposed resolution backing an Arab plan pressing Assad to step down. As well, China and Russia both refused to attend a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunis on Friday, when Western and Arab nations sought to intensify pressure on Assad.
The commentary in the People's Daily repeated China's argument that its unwillingness to take sides in Syria's conflict best reflected the interests of that country's people.
"While U.S. foreign policy claims the moral high ground by trumpeting 'democracy' and 'freedom', Washington is also constantly flinging epithets at Russia and China," it said.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also warned the West against backing military intervention in Syria. Clinton has indicated there is no enthusiasm in Washington for war.
The People's Daily commentary was published under the pen name "Zhong Sheng," meaning "Voice of China," which is often used to give the paper's view on foreign policy issues.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong said his government hoped that a referendum in Syria on Sunday -- widely rejected by opposition groups as a fig leaf for Assad's power -- could open the way for peaceful reconciliation.
"The outside should not impose so-called plans on Syria," said Hong. "We hope that this step will help advance a spirit of reform in Syria, launch political dialogue, and answer the reasonable demands of the Syrian people for change and for protection of their own interests."
Editing by Paul Tait and Ron Popeski