TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan is getting jittery about a new push within the European Union (search) to lift a 15-year embargo on weapons sales to China (search) — the communist giant that's been threatening to attack this tiny democratic island.
The Taiwanese 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 America 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 the argument that the embargo should be used to push for better human rights rings hollow, other say, noting that Taiwan 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's writing a new book about the U.S.-China-EU relationship.
Van Kemenade does not think scuttling 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, referring to years of American weapons sales to the island.
But Lai I-chung, director of foreign policy studies at the Taiwan Thinktank (search), 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: unification with Taiwan.
"The regional balance of power will be tipped over," Lai said.
Taiwan has had loose ties with China throughout much of Chinese history. When the Communists won a civil war and took over the mainland in 1949, Taiwan — once settled by the Dutch and ruled by Japan — refused to submit to Beijing's rule. Its resistance has galled the Communists, who want to be like all the great emperors and unite the motherland.
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 last 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.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Chen Tan-sun recently wrote an opinion piece about the embargo for Britain's Financial Times. The first argument he made for keeping the ban was that human rights in China have not improved enough since 1989.
"The regime behind the military crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square remains in power," Chen said. "Lifting the ban would be worse than letting it completely off the hook. It would be a positive reward."
But analysts note that human rights considerations rarely factor into Taiwan's commercial relations with China, just 160 kilometers (100 miles) across the Taiwan Strait.
"I think Taiwan — like the mainland Chinese — will do anything for money, even supply them (China) with arms if it had a chance," said van Kemenade.
After the Tiananmen protests were violently broken up, Western nations issued economic sanctions against China. The Taiwanese took advantage of the investment vacuum, stampeding into the Chinese market.
Taiwan's investments in China increased by 28 percent in 1989. Trade between the two sides totaled $5.1 billion in 1990, and it more than doubled to $11.6 billion in 1992, according to Taiwan's government.
Chinese dissident Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen protests, had no qualms about Taiwan investing in China. He said the extra money helps the Chinese people, and the trade ties bring the rivals closer together and reduce the risk of war.
But selling weapons is different, he added.
"It's not beneficial for the Chinese people," said Wang, visiting Taiwan to do research. "Maybe the arms will be used to crack down on the people again like in 1989."