WASHINGTON/SYDNEY - The Trump administration has urged United Airlines and other US 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 reported on Wednesday (June 6).
US 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 June, 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, said FT. But Doug Parker, its chief executive, last week told the Financial Times 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, who would not say if he viewed the order as Orwellian nonsense, was quoted as saying.
"I'm not certain if we are obliged to [heed the US government guidance] but right now it is between our government and their government and we are following the guidance of our government."
One person familiar with the talks between the US and the airlines said one top official had discussed the issue with Oscar Munoz, United's chief executive.
Several people told FT the National Security Council had been unusually involved in the talks with the airlines, but a White House spokesperson denied that assertion.
United declined to comment. 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 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 Julie Bishop, Australia's foreign minister, who said on Tuesday (June 5) companies "should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure".
Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas, said the Australian carrier would "meet the requirements" but it was "just taking time to get there".
He defended Qantas's decision to comply with Beijing's demands, stressing 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," Joyce added.
The Taiwan spat comes as Sino-US relations have become more tense on many fronts, including the much publicised trade friction to 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 John Bolton, the national security adviser who has long been an ardent supporter of Taipei.
The Chinese pressure over the way companies describe Taiwan has extended to several industries, including hotel chains such as Marriott and retailers such as Zara.
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 their website, reported FT.
One of the two people was cited as saying the US airlines were willing to comply with the Chinese order after a period of time. But he said the Trump administration seemed intent on fighting China over the issue.
A bipartisan group of US senators, including Cory Gardner from Colorado and Marco Rubio from Florida, recently wrote to United and American to urge them to resist the "long arm" of the Chinese government. Mr Gardner told FT that the airlines should think twice about complying with the Chinese order, and said the US should consider retaliatory measures again Chinese airlines if necessary.
"The American airlines ought to be . . . representing the interests of this country. If China wants to cancel flights because of bullying tactics, the US should reciprocate," Mr Gardner said.
"If a US airline wishes to capitulate to the demands of China, perhaps they would rather do business headquartered out of China."