- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan is getting jittery about a new push within the European Union to lift a 15-year embargo on weapons sales to China — the communist giant periodically threatening to attack this tiny democratic island.

Taiwan officials argue that dropping the ban would shake up the delicate military balance in Asia and increase the threat of war with Taiwan, a conflict that could drag in the United States and spark a Japanese military buildup.

They also insist that the EU embargo — imposed after China’s bloody 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests — should continue until the Chinese improve their dismal human rights record.

Some analysts agree that EU sales could pose a threat to Asia’s security, but Taiwan’s argument that the embargo should be used to push for better human rights rings hollow, others say, noting that the island has for years been one of China’s biggest investors.

In recent months, France and Germany have been the most enthusiastic about selling weapons to China. EU leaders are reviewing the policy, but no date has been set for a decision.

The French hope the arms sales to China can help create a more “multipolar” world with several strong nations or blocs that can check American power, said Willem van Kemenade, a Dutch sinologist and author who is writing a book about the U.S.-China-EU relationship.

Mr. van Kemenade does not think ending the ban would destabilize the region.

For many years to come, European nations’ arms sales to China will represent just a fraction “of what the U.S. is stuffing into Taiwan,” he said. Taiwan’s legislature is expected to vote this year on an $18 billion arms purchase already approved by the Bush administration.

But Lai I-chung, director of foreign policy studies at the Taiwan Thinktank, said there would be booming trade with China’s massive, big-spending military if the EU embargo ended. With advanced weaponry, China would feel emboldened and tempted to use force to achieve its sacred goal — taking back control of Taiwan.

“The regional balance of power will be tipped over,” Mr. Lai said.

Lobbying for the EU arms embargo to continue has become a top priority for Taiwan in recent weeks. Grass-roots support is beginning to build, and a small protest was held Friday in the capital. Demonstrators held up France’s tricolor flag and wrote, “EU Say No to China” down the white strip at the flag’s center.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Chen Tan-sun recently wrote an opinion piece about the embargo for London’s Financial Times. The first argument he made for keeping the ban was that human rights in China have not improved enough since 1989.

But analysts note that human rights considerations rarely factor into Taiwan’s commercial relations with China, just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.

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