American Airlines Change Taiwan Reference
Major U.S. airlines have changed Taiwan reference in their websites in compliance with Chinese demands. In this image, American Airlines aircraft are parked at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, Aug. 8, 2016. Reuters/Joshua Roberts

In an effort to avoid penalties, three major U.S. airlines — American Airlines Group Inc, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — changed how their websites refer to self-ruled Taiwan before a Wednesday deadline put up by China.

The Chinese government considers the island of Taiwan, which had been ruled separately for over a century, as an errant state that will be re-joined with the mainland one day. For this reason, foreign firms, airlines in particular, were asked by the Chinese Government not to refer to Taiwan as a separate country or as a non-Chinese territory on their websites. It wanted the reference to be removed from their drop-down menu, their product packaging and designs.

The White House condemned the demand by China in May, terming it as “Orwellian nonsense.” Later in June, the U.S. requested China for talks over the issue, which the East Asian nation declined, adding to tensions in the bilateral relationship between the two countries that was already damaged by major trade conflicts.

China’s Civil Aviation Administration had sent letters to 36 foreign air carriers earlier this year asking them to change the reference.

“The one China principle is the universal consensus of the international community. Adhering to the one China principle is the political foundation of the steady development of China-US relations, and the US side is well aware of this. The one China principle is non-negotiable,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Tuesday. "One thing I would like to add is that we hope the US government will urge relevant businesses to abide by the one China principle and make corrections on their websites as soon as possible.”

The penalties the Chinese Government may take against airlines that do not comply with their demands remain unclear. But in December, a new clause under the rules that govern foreign airlines said regulators could change a permit given to a company if they fail to meet demands of public interest.

On Tuesday, American Airlines confirmed that it changed references to Taiwanese airports on its websites. By Wednesday morning, the other two airlines also made the changes and instead of the name Taiwan, Taipei’s airport code and city were given on the websites.

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry told Reuters that 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."

“Air travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate,” American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said adding that the firm had implemented the changes as per China’s request and in line with other airlines.

Much ahead of the deadline, Hawaiian Airlines had changed its reference to Taiwan on its website. It showed search results for flights to Taiwan’s capital Taipei as “Taipei, Taipei” in their dropdown menus, Reuters reported. Many other international airlines, including Air Canada, Lufthansa and British Airways had already made the changes.

Major Airlines Change Taiwan Reference
Analysts say that the current predicament comes as a blow to Taiwan. This image shows a night view of the Xinyi Shopping District, including the Taipei 101 building (L), in Taipei, Taiwan, July 22, 2018. Getty Images/Daniel Shih

Analysts believe the current predicament comes as a blow to Taiwan and other private companies, the Guardian reported. China now has a higher political leverage due to the increasing reliance of foreign companies on its massive market.

“Over the years, the US government has said that its policy towards Taiwan is consistent, even though it’s ambiguous,” David An, a senior research fellow at Global Taiwan Institute, said. “It’s hard to say if [the airline listings] is going to change [Washington’s position] on Taiwan.”

The U.S. State Department and White House are yet to comment on the move made by the airlines. It is unclear whether the current development would affect the U.S. government's view on Taiwan.

Taiwan had been ruled separately since 1895 when Japan made it a colony. Then it was occupied by the Nationalists after the end of China’s civil war in 1946.