Big Three U.S. Airlines Cave to China’s Demands About Taiwan

FILE - In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015, file photo, an American Airlines jet taxis to the gate at Miami International Airport, in Miami. The NAACP is warning African-Americans that if they fly on American Airlines they could be subject to discrimination or even unsafe conditions. American said Wednesday, Oct. …
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The three biggest U.S. airlines – American, Delta, and United – finally caved on Tuesday to China’s demands and changed their websites to no longer describe Taiwan as a country distinct from China.

It might at best be seen as partial capitulation at the last possible moment, as the airlines now list Taiwan’s capital of Taipei as a city without a country instead of “Taipei, Taiwan.”

The Chinese originally gave foreign airlines 30 days to eliminate all references to Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau as if they were independent of communist China. Most airlines capitulated quickly, but in May, the White House denounced China’s demand as “Orwellian nonsense” and “part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.” China pushed the deadline for compliance back as U.S. airlines resisted its demands.

The final deadline was fixed at Wednesday, July 25. The penalty for continued defiance was not specified, but the Chinese government implied that permits to operate in China might be at stake. Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday that Air India changed its website listing of Taiwan’s capital to “Chinese Taipei” after the Chinese government threatened to impose a “hefty” fine for non-compliance.

American, Delta, and United appear to have changed their websites overnight. The New York Times described the website changes as a work in progress:

A user booking a ticket on Delta, for example, could search for Taiwan as a destination, but the name would not appear in the results. The Chinese version of United’s website used the airport code TPE, for Taipei Taoyuan International, while the English version included TW, which is the country code for Taiwan. (Within a few hours, the code was no longer on the site.)

Reuters reported the Chinese are pleased with the changes, while Taiwan is furious and may take some sort of legal action against the website changes:

“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.”

The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry slammed China’s “crude attempts to coerce foreign airlines to downgrade Taiwan’s status” and said it has done what it could to help the airlines resist, commending them for their “moral fortitude” in holding out as long as they could.

The Foreign Ministry statement succinctly laid out Taiwan’s case:

Taiwan is Taiwan. It does not fall under the jurisdiction of China’s government. Taiwan is a democratic nation whose achievements in freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law have won international recognition and are the envy of the people of China, who have no political freedom.

Taiwan’s existence as part of the international community is an objective fact; it will not disappear due to the suppression of the Chinese authorities. Taiwan’s people will not cease in their support and pursuit of democratic values and lifestyles simply because of China’s coercion.

Taiwan’s government calls on all like-minded nations to work closely with it to curb China’s bullying in the international arena and prevent China’s interference in the business practices of other countries from becoming an accepted norm.

“Air travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate,” an American Airlines spokeswoman said on Tuesday. The Washington Post noticed that American has completely removed Taiwan from the map of Asia on its website.

U.S.-Taiwan Business Council President Rupert Hammond-Chambers told the New York Times this was “another example of nonsovereign entities contorting themselves to satisfy Chinese pressure.”

“That bodes ill for the future, frankly, in respect of the hoops that everyone is jumping through to try to satisfy China’s goals and objectives here,” he said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was asked during a Tuesday press conference to respond to airline criticism that her department failed to work out a deal with the Chinese that might have averted the name change.

“We would oppose a government’s demand on private corporations that private corporations label something the way that the government demands it to do that. I was not aware that the companies said that they would fold to the Chinese Government, so I would just refer you back to those American companies,” she replied, indicating the State Department’s surprise that the airlines gave in.

On Tuesday, China’s Global Times approvingly cited the U.S. State Department’s commitment to the “One China” policy (i.e., Taiwan is part of China) and taunted Taiwanese officials, such as Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, for thinking the United States will help the island preserve its independence if Beijing decides to take it by force. They even put Wu’s title in scare quotes to mock the concept of Taiwan having its own Foreign Ministry.

The Global Times wrote: 

It is believed that the White House would not be that silly as to actually think it can do something big in terms of Taiwan. The island is China’s core interest. The rising strength of the People’s Liberation Army in recent years has shaken the previously absolute military superiority of the US in the region. If Washington broke its promise on the one-China policy, it would pay a huge price.  We don’t believe the Trump administration has the determination.

The collapse of U.S. airline resistance to what the State Department once denounced as petty tyranny will probably reinforce that conclusion.

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