BEIJING — Two weeks ago, four American airlines agreed to list Taiwan as part of China, a major concession to Beijing’s cartological anxieties about disputed territories like the island of 23 million. Now, Taipei is fighting back.
On Monday, Taiwan’s transportation and communications minister said he is considering punishing the airlines that removed Taiwan from their websites.
“It’s definitely unacceptable,” Wu Hong-Mo told local newspaper the United Daily News. “We must retaliate.”
Wu said offending airlines might be banned from using the air bridges that allow passengers to board the plane, or from getting plum time slots for landing or take off. The ministry is also considering a plan to reward airlines that adopt more neutral language, such as by reducing the fees they pay to use Taiwan’s airports.
“There are many different ways to do it,” he said.
If Taiwan moves ahead with its plan, it would be unprecedented, according to Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. Hammond-Chambers suggested Taipei’s unusually assertive response could be connected to the coming fall elections. Leaders “don’t want to be seen as impotent in the face of Chinese pressure,” he said.
China has always been sensitive to geographic slights. In the last few months, dozens of international companies, including Gap, Uniqlo and Qantas, have come under fire for listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Macau as separate countries. In January, clothing store Zara deleted Taiwan from a list of countries on its website after an international dust-up. Days later, Marriott issued a groveling mea culpa for sending a Web survey that included Tibet and Taiwan as sovereign states. (Beijing shuttered its website for a week as punishment.)
But no sector has faced as much pressure as the airline industry. Last spring, the Civil Aviation Administration of China sent a letter to dozens of foreign airlines, asking them to switch their destination language from Taiwan to China Taiwan or the China Taiwan region. Hours before the deadline, a handful of U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines and Hawaiian Air, complied. (American Airlines and United Airlines did not immediately return calls for comment on Taiwan’s newest plan.)
The Trump administration urged the corporations to ignore Beijing’s “Orwellian” efforts. But ultimately, access to 1.4 billion potential fliers was too hard for most companies to ignore.
Corrine Png, a Singapore aviation consultant who formerly led Asia-Pacific transportation research for JPMorgan Chase, warned that Taiwan does not have nearly as much leverage. The country’s tourism market is already struggling to attract Chinese visitors, whose numbers have dropped 35 percent over the past two years.
More than a third of all flights to Taiwan are conducted by foreign airlines. Punishing airlines could lead to fewer flights to the island, which could, in turn, dampen travel demand and hurt the country’s tourism, hospitality and retail industries.
Dafydd Fell, a Taiwan expert at SOAS University of London, urged Taiwan not to overreact.
“Airline policy changes do not change the reality that Taiwan remains an independent multiparty democracy,” he said in an email. “China’s measures are basically what I call hollow victories. They look like they are successful but they serve to reinforce anti-unification sentiment within Taiwan.”
“In sporting terminology,” he wrote, “China’s scored an own goal.”