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China-US relations

United States ‘ups the trade ante’ with attack on China’s ‘Orwellian’ demands on airlines, analysts say

Chinese tabloid Global Times says criticism of requests reflects the views of a few stubborn American elites

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 11:27pm

The United States is putting another bargaining chip in play in its trade fight with China by hitting back at Beijing’s “Orwellian” semantic demands on foreign airlines, analysts said.

The White House on Saturday condemned China’s Civil Aviation Administration for ordering 36 foreign carriers, including US airlines, to remove references on their websites or in other material that suggested Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau were part of countries independent from China. 

The White House said the demands were “Orwellian nonsense” and 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”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement on Sunday that Washington’s rhetoric would not change the fact “there’s only one China, and Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China”.

Geng said all foreign enterprises operating in China must respect China’s sovereignty and the “Chinese people’s national feeling”.

In an editorial on Sunday, government-backed tabloid Global Times said the comments reflected the stubborn view of a few American elites who saw China as a “Soviet-style totalitarian country and ignored China’s vibrant socialist market economy”.

White House condemns China for ‘Orwellian nonsense’ over how US airlines should refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau

It said the aviation administration’s request to foreign airlines followed an appeal from the Chinese public.

“The White House criticised China with fierce rhetoric and it is clearly intended to create and escalate US-China disputes,” the editorial said. 

The US moves showed that relations between the two countries were entering a period “full of war flames”, it added.

The editorial said China’s position was almost universal “political correctness” because the United Nations, other international organisations and most governments did not recognise Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet as countries. As such, airlines should “respect this fact and not do the opposite”.

It was not clear what penalties foreign carriers could face for failing to comply with the aviation administration’s demands but the public has been mobilised in the past to boycott foreign firms that refused to toe the line.

The sparring came just days after trade talks between US and Chinese officials ended in Beijing without a breakthrough. 

Tensions have escalated between the world’s two biggest economies in recent months, with billions in tariffs – and retaliatory tariffs – threatened by both sides over Washington’s complaints about China’s trade surplus with the US, reciprocal market access, and intellectual property rights. 

In quest to cut trade balance with China, Trump misses opportunity to pressure Beijing over opening up of economy

Analysts said the latest criticism from the White House followed complaints about Chinese political interference overseas and was another potential concession in the trade clash.

Wei Zongyou, a Sino-US relations specialist at Fudan University in Shanghai, said US authorities had been “very concerned about the Chinese government’s use of forceful or non-forceful measures” to induce “self-censorship” at foreign businesses, schools, and media. 

“Amid the intense trade confrontation between China and the US, the Trump administration is clearly willing to seize every opportunity to exert pressure on China,” Wei said.

He said the Chinese government was unlikely to give ground on the issue but “it probably did not expect the Trump administration to respond so strongly”.

University of Melbourne international relations professor Sow Keat Tok said the White House statement was “another bargaining chip thrown into the negotiating process”.

“It is a clear message to China that’s following up what Trump has said vis-à-vis China, that they’re not willing to tolerate any sort of economic blackmail from China in any way,” Tok said. 

“I think eventually China might get its way because corporations would not want to lose the Chinese market ... they might adjust their behaviour accordingly. No one is going to fight against money, especially airlines.”

Taiwan’s foreign ministry thanked Washington for taking a stand on Beijing’s attempts to put pressure on the island.

“We’ll continue making contributions to the international community despite the actions of China,” the ministry said.

The next step? After US-China trade talks fail, Trump and Xi ‘may need to get involved’

China’s aviation administration did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Various international companies have felt the heat from Beijing over similar controversies.

In January, the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered the US Marriott Hotel chain to temporarily suspend operations after its website listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries. 

A month later, German car company Mercedes-Benz apologised for an Instagram post featuring a quote from Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist.

Tok said that much of the patriotic fervour had been stirred up by online users in China who actively patrolled nationalist lines.

“The state is trying to react to the situation on the ground; otherwise [Chinese President] Xi Jinping will be accused of selling away the Chinese nation,” he said. 

“China never ... thought about it until the end of last year, when netizens began to start becoming very active towards South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, and the Chinese state suddenly realised that they have an economic weapon that they can use.”

Additional reporting by Reuters