Beijing’s demand to refer to ‘China Taiwan’ still being defied by US airlines

Carriers consulting US government ahead of July 25 deadline to change the wording on their websites, risking commercial consequences in China if they refuse

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 11:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 11:02am

With a month to go for the world’s major airlines to meet Beijing’s demand that they recognise Taiwan as part of China, US carriers risk flying fewer mainland passengers by staying defiant.

While Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Australia’s Qantas have changed how they described Taiwan on their websites, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have remained among the last few standing, calling the island a region or country.

They could face measures such as air traffic control delays, ramp inspections, hold-ups at immigration and security checks, according to Robert Mann, the New York-based head of aviation consultancy R.W. Mann & Co.

“The present trade regime and rhetoric is getting ugly, and it may get far uglier,” Mann said. “Short of an outright ban, the Chinese could make it commercially, operationally difficult for US carriers arriving and departing Chinese airports.”

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Delta and American Airlines, which have been given until July 25 to fall in line with China’s wishes on the Taiwan issue, say they are consulting the US government. The White House has previously dismissed the order as “Orwellian nonsense”.

A representative for United Continental, the US carrier with the most services to mainland China, declined to comment.

The diplomatic spat comes at a time of a worsening tit-for-tat trade war between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.

The major long-term threat is to the establishment of a China-US “open skies” aviation treaty, a pre-condition for code-share alliances that can succeed under competition law, Mann said.

There are more options available to China to inflict pain, said Corrine Png, chief executive and founder of Crucial Perspective, a Singapore-based research firm focused on transportation.

“The US carriers have much larger exposure to China routes and therefore have more to lose by offending China,” she said.

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China’s government could prompt travellers from the mainland to boycott American carriers and could impose tourism curbs by approving fewer package tours – a tactic that proved effective against South Korea when the country decided to deploy a US missile shield on its soil last year despite China’s complaints, Png said.

China, which says its relations with the US rest on American acceptance of its “one China” claim, has been angered by growing ties between the Trump administration and Taiwan’s government, headed by the pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen. In March, Xi warned that efforts to widen divisions with Taiwan would be “punished by history”.

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In April, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) sent a letter to more than 40 foreign airlines, telling them that they should not place China, Hong Kong and Taiwan on an equal footing, and should refer to “China Taiwan” or the “China Taiwan region”.

Maps must display the territories in the same colour as mainland China and the websites should not place Taiwan in other categories such as Southeast Asia, it said. After some operators sought more time to consider the demand, the deadline set by Beijing was extended to July 25.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in May that it was part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies, which she said “will be resisted”.

“We are reviewing the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s request and will remain in close consultation with the US government throughout this process,” Delta said in an emailed statement. American Airlines is also consulting the US government, said Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman.

The US carriers are not alone. A spokesman for Air India, which flies passengers to Taipei through a code-share agreement with Taiwanese carrier EVA Air and lists Taiwan as a country on its website, said it was a decision for the government to make.

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India’s foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar did not respond to a request for comment.

A representative for CAAC referred to previous statements regarding Taiwan. A letter dated April 25 cited Chinese regulations that could subject non-compliant airlines to punishments including curtailment of resources and administrative licenses.

The Tsai government in Taiwan is not happy either as airlines bow to China’s wish. The island’s foreign ministry called on international governments and companies to bravely resist China’s “unreasonable request”, according to a statement from the ministry on June 18.

“This isn’t just a cross-strait issue; it is a threat to the international democratic community,” Taiwan presidential spokesman Alex Huang said in a text message the following day.