Taiwan contemplates retaliating against airlines that refer to it as part of China
A Cathay Pacific Airways passenger plane takes off near a Taiwanese national flag at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan, on Monday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters) August 7 at 8:11 AM Email the author
BEIJING â" Two weeks ago, four American airlines agreed to list Taiwan as a Chinese territory, a major concession to Beijingâs cartological anxieties about disputed territories like the island-nation of 23 million. Now, Taipei is fighting back.
On Monday, Taiwanâs transportation and communications minister said heâs considering punishing the airlines that removed Taiwan from their websites.
âItâs definitely unacceptable,â Wu Hong-Mo told local newspaper the United Daily News. âWe must retaliate.â
Wu said offending airlines might be banned from using the air bridges that allow passengers to board the plane, or from getting plum time slots for landing or take off. The ministry is also considering a plan to reward airlines that adopt more neutral language, like reducing the fees they pay to use Taiwanâs airports.
âThere are many different ways to do it,â he said.
If Taiwan moves ahead with its plan, it would be unprecedented, according to Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council.
âIâve never seen anything like that,â he said. Hammond-Chambers suggested Taipeiâs unusually assertive response could be connected to upcoming fall elections. Leaders âdonât want to be seen as impotent in the face of Chinese pressure,â he said.
[China to U.S. airlines: Change Taiwan on your websites â" or pay the price]
China has always been sensitive to geographic slights. In the last few months, dozens of international companies, including Gap, Uniqlo and Qantas, have come under fire for listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Macau as separate countries. In January, clothing store Zara deleted Taiwan from a list of countries on its website after an international dust-up. Days later, Marriott issued a groveling mea culpa for sending a Web survey that included Tibet and Taiwan as sovereign states. (Beijing shuttered its website for a week as punishment.)
But no sector has faced as much pressure as the airline industry. Last spring, the Civil Aviation Administration of China sent a letter to dozens of foreign airlines, asking them to switch their destination language from Taiwan to China Taiwan or the China Taiwan region. Hours before the deadline, a handful of U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines and Hawaiian Air, complied. (American Airlines and United Airlines did not immediately return calls for comment on Taiwanâ s newest plan.)
The Trump administration urged the corporations to ignore Beijingâs âOrwellianâ efforts. But ultimately, access to 1.4 billion potential fliers was too hard for most companies to ignore.
Corrine Png, a Singapore aviation consultant who formerly led Asia-Pacific transportation research for JPMorgan Chase, warned that Taiwan doesnât have nearly as much leverage. The countryâs tourism market is already struggling to attract Chinese visitors. The number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan has dropped 35 percent over the past two years.
More than a third of all flights to Taiwan are conducted by foreign airlines. Punishing airlines could lead to fewer flights to the island which could, in turn, dampen travel demand and hurt the countryâs tourism, hospitality and retail industries.
Dafydd Fell, a Taiwan expert at SOAS University of London, urged Taiwan not to overreact.
âAirline policy changes do not change the reality that Taiwa n remains an independent multiparty democracy,â he said in an email. âChinaâs measures are basically what I call hollow victories. They look like they are successful but they serve to reinforce anti-unification sentiment within Taiwan.â
âIn sporting terminology,â he wrote, âChinaâs scored an own goal.â
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