WASHINGTON • The White House has sharply criticised China's efforts to force foreign airlines to change how they refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, labelling China's latest effort to police language describing the politically sensitive territories as "Orwellian nonsense".
Amid an escalating fight over China's trade surplus with the US, the White House said on Saturday that China's Civil Aviation Administration sent a letter to 36 foreign air carriers, including a number of US carriers, demanding changes.
The carriers were told to remove references on their websites or in other material that suggest Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are part of countries independent from China, US and airline officials said.
The White House said in a statement that US President Donald Trump "will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens".
"This is Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies... We call on China to stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens."
Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue. Beijing considers the self-ruled, democratic island a wayward province. Hong Kong and Macau are former European colonies that are now part of China but run largely autonomously.
Yesterday, China's foreign ministry responded to the White House comments, saying that overseas companies operating in China should respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, follow Chinese law and "respect the national feelings of the Chinese people".
"No matter what the United States says, it cannot change the objective fact that there is only one China in the world and that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are indivisible parts of Chinese territory," spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement on the ministry website.
The White House's sharp criticism follows contentious trade talks between senior US and Chinese officials last week.
"My group just got back from China. We're going to have to rework China because that's been a one-way street for decades," Mr Trump said at an event in Cleveland on Saturday. "We can't go on that way," he said, although he also said he has a lot respect for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China's top diplomat, Mr Yang Jiechi, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday discussed bilateral ties by phone, with Mr Yang saying relations were at "an important stage", according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
It was unclear if the call came after, or was a response to, the White House statement - or if the two had even discussed the issue of how Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are referred to by US companies.
According to a Chinese foreign ministry statement late on Saturday, Mr Yang told Mr Pompeo that the two countries should strengthen exchanges, maintain close communication over economic and trade issues and respect each other's "core interests and major concerns".
A spokesman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing United Airlines, American Airlines and other major carriers, said on Saturday it was working with the US government to determine "next steps" in the dispute.
In January, Delta Air Lines, following a demand from China to change its listing of Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website, apologised for making "an inadvertent error with no business or political intention".