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China to U.S. airlines: Change Taiwan on your websites — or pay the price

A staff member assists a passenger near the check-in counters for Delta Air Lines at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing.
A staff member assists a passenger near the check-in counters for Delta Air Lines at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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BEIJING — U.S.-based airlines in China could face Internet trouble, snubs from Chinese ticket brokers and state-sanctioned boycotts if they do not follow Beijing’s order to change the way they label Taiwan on their websites by Wednesday.

One day before the deadline, American, Delta and United airlines had not complied with Beijing’s demands to refer to the island as “China Taiwan.”

The Trump administration also has opposed the order, first made by Beijing in April and now followed by some international carriers seeking to avoid a showdown in the important Chinese travel market.

Chinese officials warned Tuesday that defiance by U.S. airlines could further hurt “the stable development” of Sino-American relations at a time when the world’s two largest economies are locked in an increasingly costly trade war

The wording by airlines carries no significance over the official status of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory under its “one-China” policy. But to Chinese leaders, forcing airlines to make the change represents an important symbolic victory and a display of the country’s economic leverage.

Taiwan split from China after Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Taiwan and China have held talks in recent years but remain deeply at odds.

“We hope that the U.S. government will urge the companies concerned to abide by the one-China policy and make improvements to their websites as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.

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U.S. airline executives have said they are working with the White House on the matter, offering few clues as to which direction they will ultimately take. (American, Delta and United did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

But the State Department on Tuesday showed no sign of backing down.

“We have told China that the United States strongly objects to China’s attempts to compel private firms to use specific words of a political nature in their publicly available content,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said. “We continue to seek to address this issue.”

About three months ago, the Civil Aviation Administration of China sent a letter to dozens of foreign airlines, asking them to switch their destination language to “China Taiwan” or the “China Taiwan region” — or else. 

The demand comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping's government increasingly wields its commercial power to influence foreign policy goals. 

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Firms have quickly bent under the risk of losing access to the lucrative Chinese market. Gap, one such company, apologized to China after selling shirts featuring maps of the country without Taiwan. 

Japan Air Lines, British Airways and Australia’s Qantas acceded to Beijing’s wishes, while the Trump administration has called China’s threat “Orwellian nonsense.” The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Ultimately, U.S. air carriers could absorb the blows from refusing to play by Beijing’s rules, analysts say.

Corrine Png, a Singaporean aviation consultant who formerly led Asia-Pacific transportation research for JPMorgan Chase, said China could ramp up regulations for American airlines, slow their websites and advise local travel agencies not to make bookings on their planes. 

The country can also slap limits on the number of tourists who can visit the United States, she added.

“This tactic has proven highly effective against South Korea and Taiwan in the past,” Png said, “impacting not just the airlines but also the broader tourism, hospitality and retail industries.”

China watchers also expect an aggressive response from the government.

“Punitive measures are a certainty,” said Yang Lixian, deputy secretary general of the National Society of Taiwan Studies in Beijing. “The fact that these American airlines still haven't changed the Taiwan description is a public provocation by the U.S. side to test China’s limits.”

The country’s attempt to control the message from U.S. carriers stems from Xi’s broader goal to assert China’s power on the global stage, said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

“Xi will be tough on the Taiwan issue,” Li said. “It’s a challenge to China’s national sovereignty.”

The aviation tensions flared less than three weeks after the United States officially ignited a trade war with China, slapping tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese goods. Beijing swiftly responded with duties on an equal amount of American products. 

Trump has threatened to impose levies on an additional $200 billion in Chinese imports as early as September. 

Amber Wang in Beijing contributed to this report. 

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