After describing it as “Orwellian nonsense” last month, the Trump administration is again pushing back against China’s request that US airlines change how they refer to Taiwan to make clear that it is a part of China.
“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,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement.
According to the Financial Times, US officials have asked United, American Airlines and Delta not to comply with China’s demands, which stipulate that airlines should refer to Taiwan as “Taiwan, China” on their websites and maps. China sent letters earlier this year to 36 foreign airlines demanding they remove any language which implied that Taiwan was an independent state, saying they have until later this month to comply.
The White House has urged airlines to push back and tell China that this issue should be handled by the US and Chinese governments.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told the FT last month that the Taiwan issue is “between countries.”
“The United States has replied to the Chinese government and as a result we are following the direction of the US government,” said Mr Parker, who would not say if he viewed the order as Orwellian nonsense. “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.”
While the White House is trying to reassure carriers that it will handle the issue with China, air lines are nervous because they could lose access to valuable routes in China at a time when the Chinese market is becoming increasingly important for aviation.
“If airlines are denied landing rights, they will simply have to deal with the commercial realities presented by the Chinese government and US top cover won’t help,” said Evan Medeiros, a former White House Asia official. “The only message the Chinese will understand is if the airlines, for their own reasons, are not willing to accept Chinese demands. The Chinese know the pressure points, and it is airline operations and not government-to-government interactions.”
A group of US senators recently wrote to the airlines urging them to rebuff China’s request.
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 the Financial Times 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.
Australia’s Qantas Airline and several other foreign airlines have decided to comply with China’s request, according to Business Insider.
Qantas said it’s in the process of changing over all references to Taiwan in its systems and on its website, but that finalizing such a move will take time.
“Our intention is to meet the requirements. It is just taking time to get there,” CEO Alan Joyce told reporters at the annul meeting of the International Air Transport Association.
“The IT and technology that underpins our websites and the connectivity takes time for us to get to grips with changes that need to be put into the programming stages of that,” the statement read.
“An inter-governmental agreement on the naming and grouping of states and territories would be a helpful reference. In the meantime, airlines wishing to serve the China market are doing their best to comply with China’s very stringent requirements.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association said its members had no “no wish to make political statements” in their descriptions of markets.
Air Canada, Air France, Malaysia Airlines, and a handful of other carriers have changed their references to Taiwan since receiving letters from Beijing. Lufthansa and British Airways made similar changes earlier this year after Delta Air Lines was censured by China for listing Taiwan as a country on its website. China has also been pressuring hotel chains and retailers. White House officials were reportedly angered earlier this year when Delta apologized to China for labeling Taiwan and Tibet as countries on their website.