SYDNEY - A Chinese-born Australian senator on Wednesday defended Beijing's claims to a chain of disputed islands at the centre of growing tensions in the South China Sea, saying the country with the most power "at the time" would emerge triumphant.
Dio Wang, a senator from mining magnate Clive Palmer's small but influential Palmer United Party (PUP), made the comments just days after his defence of Beijing's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters drew outrage in Australia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott opposes Chinese designs on the islands, which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, but his government does not control the upper house Senate, where minor parties hold huge sway.
Wang, a soft-spoken former mining executive who emigrated to Australia in 2003, backed Beijing over the flashpoint issue in an interview with the West Australian newspaper. "I think China does have some valid claims given the history. But we don't live in history. Moving forward, whoever has the most power at the time will be the most successful in making claims," he said.
Australia has joined the United States in expressing concern over freedom of movement through the seas and air in the South China Sea, where China is creating seven artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, a vital shipping corridor.
Some security experts say China might impose air and sea restrictions in the Spratlys once it completes construction work that includes at least one military airstrip. China has said it had every right to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone but that current conditions did not warrant one.
Abbott has been strongly supportive of Washington's efforts to boost security links between regional allies Australia and Japan as a bulwark against growing Chinese influence, but his lack of control over the senate places limits on his authority.
Wang made headlines over the weekend over his backing of China's decision to send in tanks to break up the student-led protests in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
China has never released a death toll but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand. "Obviously when criminals and students get mixed up you can't really identify each of them," he said an interview published on Saturday by the Australian Financial Review. "So when there was force deployed you may get innocent casualties ... otherwise the country would have descended into hell."