U.S. Airlines Toe Beijing Line on Taiwan

U.S. Airlines Toe Beijing Line on Taiwan

Beijing airport, July 25, 2018. Beijing hailed "positive steps" as major U.S. airlines and Hong Kong's flag carrier moved to comply with its demand to list Taiwan as part of China, sparking anger on the island.

SourceGreg Baker/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Commerical American airline firms have caved in to Chinese pressure over how they refer to Taiwan.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have changed their websites to refer to Taiwan as “Taiwan, China,” even after the Trump administration urged U.S. carriers to ignore the Chinese demand.

Beijing had threatened to cut market access for 36 foreign airlines unless they changed language on their websites that implied that Taiwan — a democratically ruled independent island claimed by Beijing — was not part of China.

In an effort to comply with the demand, United and Delta removed the word “China” from destinations in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One person familiar with the move said it was designed to find a clever solution to the problem.

American said it had taken the same approach in the way it referred to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. But its website still lists “China” for Beijing and Shanghai flights. Passengers booking flights to Europe, Latin America and other parts of Asia on all three carriers will see the country name listed with their destination city.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry initially suggested that the changes would suffice. But the Chinese aviation regulation then said that its efforts were “incomplete” and that it would “pay close attention” before making a determination.

These demands are the mark of insecure, impotent leaders who know the future will not belong to them.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Doug Parker, American’s CEO, said last week that he thought the U.S. carrier had come up with a “nice solution.”

“We had a deadline, we complied with the deadline with what we thought was a nice solution for everyone and hopefully that will be the case,” said Parker. “This is a matter of international affairs that is more important to those countries than to American Airlines and we don’t want to intervene in that process.”

The approach taken by the U.S. carriers stood in contrast to some other foreign airlines, which went further by adding either “China” or “CN” to their destinations in Taiwan. Air Canada’s website says “Taipei, Taiwan, CN” for flights to Taiwan, while Qantas uses “Taipei, Taiwan, China.” British Airways uses “Taipei, Taiwan — China.”

The U.S. airlines came under fire from some Republican politicians, including Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who is a hawk on U.S. foreign policy.

“It’s disappointing that American Airlines, Delta and United complied with this ultimatum, but the Chinese Communist Party’s obsession with Taiwan — the only democracy on Chinese soil — is pathetic,” says Cotton. “These demands are the mark of insecure, impotent leaders who know the future will not belong to them.”

Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, is also criticizing the move and urging the U.S. carriers “not to succumb to Beijing’s ‘Orwellian nonsense.’” He said the U.S. should “push back against this type of economic coercion and censorship.”

Aviation experts said the airlines were caught in a bind because while they did not want to antagonize the White House, and possibly provoke criticism from President Donald Trump, they were concerned at losing the ability to service what is one of the fastest-growing aviation markets in the world.

“The U.S. airline industry is a global business that must contend with a host of regulations and requirements,” says Airlines for America, an industry lobby group, adding that it and the airlines “appreciate the engagement and counsel we have received from the [Trump] administration.”

According to a Taiwan government spokesperson, Taipei is exploring possible litigation on the issue. “Taiwan has been closely interconnected with the world, and defending our shared democratic values on the front line. That is a fact which cannot be easily erased by simply removing the name of Taiwan from the internet. The people of Taiwan will not bow to pressure,” the spokesperson said last week.

“We call on international society to take China’s aggressive international conduct seriously, and work together to prevent an expansion of such unwanted pressure.”

After Beijing issued the demand in May, the White House described it as “Orwellian nonsense” and asked carriers to leave negotiations to the U.S. government. But one industry expert said China had refused to engage in talks with the U.S. administration.

The capitulation by the airlines comes as the U.S. and China are locked in an escalating trade war. Some China experts say the trade tensions have reduced leverage with Beijing — from the fracas over Taiwan to dealing with North Korea.

While the White House tried to convince the airlines that it could protect them, carriers were worried that Beijing would respond to noncompliance by denying them landing spots in China.

The Chinese pressure came as Washington, from Congress to the Trump administration, has taken a tougher stance toward Beijing over Taiwan. In March, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which urges exchanges between U.S. officials and their counterparts in Taiwan, despite official protest from Beijing.

China views Taiwan as an inalienable part of its sovereign territory and hopes to assume control of the island. The U.S. deals with Taiwan under its “One China” policy, a four-decade-old diplomatic formula under which Washington recognizes Beijing as the capital of China while maintaining unofficial relations with the island of 23 million people, mainly through a liaison office in Taipei.

Additional reporting by Patti Waldmeir and Ben Bland.

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By Demetri Sevastopulo and Edward White

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