WASHINGTON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The three biggest US airlines changed how they refer to self-ruled Taiwan on their websites to avoid Chinese penalties ahead of a Wednesday (July 25) deadline – revisions Beijing described as “positive developments”.
Earlier this year, China demanded that foreign firms, and airlines in particular, not refer to Taiwan as a non-Chinese territory on their websites. The White House in May slammed the demand as “Orwellian nonsense.”
But Beijing set a final deadline of July 25 for the changes, and last month rejected US requests for talks on the matter, adding to tension in relations already frayed by an escalating trade conflict.
Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue. Beijing considers the island a wayward province of “one China”.
Reuters reported early on Tuesday that American Airlines Group Inc, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines were set to change how they refer to Taiwanese airports on their websites. American Airlines confirmed the change later in the day.
A check of all three airlines’ websites on Wednesday morning showed they now only list Taipei’s airport code and city, but not the name Taiwan.
“China is willing to share China’s development opportunities with foreign companies and welcomes them to invest in and operate in China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
“Of course we hope that when they operate in China they respect China’s laws and rules, China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry on Wednesday said it “most severely” condemned the Chinese government’s use of political power to “crudely and unreasonably interfere with private commercial activity and international companies’ operations”.
It was unclear how China might punish airlines that do not comply, but in December it added a clause to rules governing foreign airlines saying regulators could change a company’s permit if it did not meet “the demand of public interest”.
American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said the firm had implemented the changes at China’s request in line with other carriers. “Air travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate,” she said on Tuesday.
Hawaiian Airlines had changed its website ahead of the deadline to showing searches for flights to Taiwan’s capital Taipei as “Taipei, Taipei” in dropdown menus, Reuters reported on Tuesday morning.
The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment late on Tuesday.
Numerous non-US airlines including Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways and Singapore Airlines had already made changes to their websites, after China’s Civil Aviation Administration sent a letter to 44 foreign air carriers earlier in the year.
China has waged a campaign to force global businesses to conform to its world view if they want to stay in its good graces.
Democratically governed Taiwan has been a central issue among the territorial disputes, especially after the Trump administration's growing ties with the island's pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government fled to Taipei in 1949, and Beijing regards the island as a province to be taken by force if necessary.
Hong Kong and Macau - also requested by the aviation authority to be referred to as Chinese territories - are special administrative regions that enjoy greater autonomy.
Airlines feared a failure to comply would result in some kind of commercial penalty from China, which would threaten the carriers' operating conditions in the country's fast-growing aviation market.
Air India Ltd chose to rename Taiwan as Chinese Taipei on its website after the threat of a "hefty" penalty for non-compliance, spokesman Praveen Bhatnagar told Bloomberg News.
Last year, airlines made 7.95 million flights between China and the US, a 5.8 per cent increase.
United, Air China and China Eastern together account for more than 50 per cent of the market share, followed by China Southern.
Hainan Air replaced Delta as the fifth-largest carrier on this route amid its aggressive launch of direct flights from second-tier Chinese cities to the US.
Delta resumed its daily flight between Atlanta and Shanghai on July 20, citing its commercial links with China Eastern Airlines Corp. Delta holds about a 3.5 per cent stake in China Eastern; American invested US$200 million (S$272.80 million) last year for a similarly sized share of China Southern Airlines Co.
"Private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said after flag carrier Qantas bowed to the demand.