US airlines urged to snub Beijing over Taiwan issue

Washington reportedly tells carriers not to heed demands on how territory is referred to

WASHINGTON/SYDNEY • The US government has urged United Airlines and other American carriers to ignore Chinese demands over how they refer to Taiwan, in the latest example of mounting friction between the US and China, the Financial Times (FT) reported yesterday.

United States officials have asked United, American Airlines and Delta not to comply with a Chinese demand to write "Taiwan, China" instead of Taiwan on their websites and maps, the London-based newspaper said, citing five people familiar with the issue.

The request came after China ordered 36 foreign airlines to remove any language which implied that Taiwan, a democratically ruled independent island claimed by Beijing, was not part of China.

The White House last month described the Chinese order as "Orwellian nonsense".

Trump administration officials have urged the airlines to push back and to tell China, which has extended the deadline until late this month, that the Taiwan issue should be handled by the US and Chinese governments.

American Airlines declined to comment on the specifics of discussions with the government, the paper reported. But Mr Doug Parker, its chief executive, last week told the FT that the Taiwan issue was "between countries".

"The United States has replied to the Chinese government and, as a result, we are following the direction of the US government," Mr Parker was quoted as saying.

The Taiwan spat comes as Sino-US relations have become more tense on many fronts, including the much publicised trade frictions and US concerns about the militarisation of the South China Sea.

One person familiar with the talks between the US and the airlines said one top official had discussed the issue with Mr Oscar Munoz, United's chief executive.

Several people told the FT the National Security Council had been unusually involved in the talks with the airlines, but a White House spokesman denied that assertion.

United declined to comment, while Delta said it was reviewing the Chinese request and would "remain in close consultation with the US government".

While the White House argues that it can help provide cover for the US carriers, the Chinese threat poses a big problem for the airlines since they could lose landing spots in China for not complying, according to the FT.

It also comes as the Chinese market becomes increasingly important for the global aviation market.

Australian carrier Qantas this week became the latest foreign airline to say it would comply with the Chinese order, despite reservations from Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said on Tuesday that companies "should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure".

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said the Australian carrier would "meet the requirements" but it was "just taking time to get there".

He defended Qantas' decision to comply with Beijing's demands, emphasising that "it's not airlines that define what countries are, it's governments".

"And, at the end of the day, the Australians, like a lot of countries, have a 'One China' policy," Mr Joyce added.

Two people familiar with the reaction inside the White House said officials were angry when Delta earlier this year apologised to China for listing Taiwan - and Tibet - as countries on its website, reported the FT.

The Taiwan spat comes as Sino-US relations have become more tense on many fronts, including the much publicised trade frictions and US concerns about the militarisation of the South China Sea.

China has expressed anger at Congressional moves to promote more visits by US officials to Taiwan, and is concerned that the Trump administration has several senior officials with strong pro-Taiwan views, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has long been an ardent supporter of Taipei.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2018, with the headline 'US airlines urged to snub Beijing over Taiwan issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe