Under pressure from China, US airlines start changing references to Taiwan
Chinese security personnel stand near the check-in counters for American Airlines at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing on July 6. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP) July 25 at 11:10 AM Email the author
BEIJING â" Under pressure from the Chinese government, U.S. airlines are acceding to Beijingâs demand that they change the way they refer to Taiwan â" an edit the Trump administration has urged U.S. carriers to resist.
American Airlines wiped Taiwan from its website, and United Airlines said it was working to meet Chinaâs requirements.
The moves come about three months after Beijing ordered dozens of foreign airlines to refer to the island as a Chinese territory or face co nsequences in the worldâs second-largest aviation market.
Less than 24 hours after American Airlines announced it had bent to Beijingâs will, United Airlines indicated it would follow suit.
âUnited Airlines has begun to roll out changes to its systems to address Chinaâs requirements,â United spokesman Frank Benenati said. âUnited abides by and respects local laws and regulations in all markets and jurisdictions where we operate and conduct business. United flights to mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will continue to operate normally.â
By Wednesday morning, Chinese users could no longer see the name âTaiwanâ on a map of Asia on the American Airlines website, while China, Japan and the Koreas remained. The change is expected to reach all the airlineâs online content, although updates may have lagged in some markets, a spokeswoman said.
âLike other carriers, American is implementing changes to address Chinaâs request,â American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said in a statement. âAir travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate.â
American Airlines tweaked its language just hours before Beijingâs July 25 deadline. President Xi Jinpingâs government demanded that the airlines stop listing the island online as its own country and instead call it âChina Taiwanâ or a similar title.
The wording on commercial websites bears no significance over the official status of Taiwan, which Beijing has claimed as part of its territory under its âone-China policy.â But driving U.S. carriers to self-censorship is a symbolic victory for Chinese leaders and an example of the nationâs business leverage.
[China to U.S. airlines: Change Taiwan on your websites â" or pay the price]
Taiwan broke from China after Chiang Kai-shekâs Nationalist Party fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedongâs Communists. Taiwan and C hinaâs relationship remains fraught, despite a number of talks between the parties in recent years.
Taiwanese leaders condemned Chinaâs airline campaign Wednesday.
âTaiwan is Taiwan,â Lishan Chang, spokesperson for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, said in a statement. âIt does not fall under the jurisdiction of Chinaâs government. Taiwan is a democratic nation whose achievements in freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law have won international recognition and are the envy of the people of China, who have no political freedom.â
Chinese officials applauded the âpositive developmentsâ by foreign airlines Wednesday without mentioning any specific American carriers.
âWe certainly hope that when they operate in China, they must respect Chinaâs laws and regulations, respect Chinaâs sovereignty and territorial integrity, and respect the feelings of the Chinese people,â Foreign Mi nistry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
The State Department, however, said airlines should stand their ground.
âWe have told China that the United States strongly objects to Chinaâs attempts to compel private firms to use specific words of a political nature in their publicly available content,â a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Tuesday. âWe continue to seek to address this issue.â
Disobeying China, however, carries a steep economic risk for airlines in the rapidly expanding market. Roughly 549 million passengers in China took flights last year, compared with 184 million in 2007.
Analysts say Beijing can cripple access to these fliers by ramping up regulations, crashing websites, ordering ticket brokers to shun American carriers and reducing the number of tourists who are allowed to travel to the United States.
The risk of noncompliance is a doozy, said Bob Mann, an airline industry in New York.
âThey canâ t sell within China,â Mann said.
The Trump administration has called Beijingâs demand âOrwellian nonsense,â but industry groups suggested Wednesday that more U.S. carriers may comply.
[Gap apologizes to China over map on T-shirt that omits Taiwan, South China Sea]
Chinese officials have called the matter nonnegotiable and have rejected at least one request from the White House to discuss the issue.
âAs with other sectors of the economy, the U.S. airline industry is a global business that must contend with a host of regulations and requirements,â Airlines for America, a lobbying group for the industry, said in a statement. âA4A and the affected U.S airlines appreciate the engagement and counsel we have received from the Administration as carriers begin to implement a solution.â
The aviation deadline arrived less than three weeks after the United States kicked off a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese imp orts. Beijing retaliated with levies on an equal amount of American goods.
President Trump has vowed to slap duties on an additional $200 billion in Chinese products as early as September.
Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.
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