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China Threatens U.S. Airlines Over Taiwan References

Beijing is pressuring companies around the world to follow the party line on Taiwan sovereignty — or else.

United Airlines flight 897 lifts off from Dulles International Airport on its maiden flight from Washington, DC to Beijing, the first-ever nonstop flight between the two capitals, on March 28, 2007. (Paul J. RIchards/AFP/Getty Images)
United Airlines flight 897 lifts off from Dulles International Airport on its maiden flight from Washington, DC to Beijing, the first-ever nonstop flight between the two capitals, on March 28, 2007. (Paul J. RIchards/AFP/Getty Images)

The Civil Aviation Administration of China has sent a letter to United Airlines and American Airlines demanding that their global operations follow China’s restrictions against “separatism,” meaning that any references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as countries independent from China must be removed.

The strongly worded letter demands that all public-facing content, across the world, must follow “Chinese law.” It gives the airlines a set timeline to comply with the demands, threatening that if not obeyed, the matter will be referred to “the relevant cyber-security authorities” for punishment, a source with access to the letter told Foreign Policy.

The websites of both United and American list airports in Taiwan only as “Taiwan,” without reference to China. Chinese officials have increasingly pressured foreign companies and international organizations to explicitly refer to Taiwan as part of mainland China.

An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed to FP that the company received the letter and is reviewing it. United Airlines did not provide a comment.

The status of Taiwan is one of the most consistent and sensitive red lines in mainland China, and tight linguistic rules are enforced. Within China, producing material deemed “separatist,” even accidentally — such as by using a map that shows Taiwan in a different color than China — can result in serious legal and political consequences, including fines, public castigation, and even potential jail time.

China’s demands to U.S. airlines are part of an increasingly coercive campaign by Beijing to bring foreign companies, including their operations outside of China, in line with the Communist Party’s official stance. By threatening to deny access to its enormous markets, China uses economic leverage to achieve foreign-policy goals.

In January, Beijing pulled the plug on Marriott’s website in China for an entire week after the hotel company included Taiwan and Tibet in a pull-down list of countries in an online survey sent to Chinese consumers. In response, Marriott apologized, ended its relationship with the contractor responsible for the survey, and fired a U.S.-based Marriott employee, Roy Jones, who had used a company social media account to “like” a post from the Twitter account of a Tibetan separatist group. 

In late March, the Man Booker International Prize changed the nationality of Wu Ming-yi, a 2018 longlist awardee hailing from Taiwan, to “Taiwan, China” under pressure from the Chinese Embassy in London. After an international outcry, the organization changed Wu’s affiliation back to “Taiwan” but described it as a “country/territory” rather than a nationality.

“We object to Beijing dictating how U.S. firms, including airlines, organize their websites for ease of consumer use. Chinese companies’ websites operate freely and without political interference in the United States,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told FP, adding that the department had raised “strong concerns” with Chinese authorities. “While we seek a mutually beneficial commercial aviation relationship with China, we will consider taking appropriate action if necessary in response to unfair Chinese actions.”

China is projected to replace the United States as the world’s largest air travel market by 2022, according to a 2017 forecast by the International Air Transport Association. United Airlines operates 20 percent of all flights between China and United States. Airline traffic between the two countries is heavily regulated; bilateral agreements have limited the number of round-trip flights by U.S. airlines to China to 140 per week, while Chinese airlines are permitted 180 flights per week.

The Chinese aviation administration letter comes amid chilled relations between Taipei and Beijing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has shunned her predecessor’s close ties to mainland China. Last year, China persuaded one of Taiwan’s last remaining allies, Panama, to cut ties with Taipei and establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.

This month, the Chinese navy, led by its aircraft carrier the Liaoning, carried out military drills near Taiwan and launched bombers to fly a circle around the small island nation.

Beijing has successfully blocked Taipei’s official participation in many multilateral organizations, or allowed it only on the condition that Taiwan be referred to as “Chinese Taipei” or other terms indicating Chinese sovereignty over the island.

The letter also comes amid a looming trade war between the United States and China, as U.S. President Donald Trump has slapped up to $60 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to retaliate against imports of U.S. goods including fruit, pork, and wine.

Under the auspices of Trump’s overarching “Buy American, Hire American” drive, the State Department has trumpeted international business deals for the U.S. aviation industry.

This article has been updated to include comments from the State Department.

Robbie Gramer contributed reporting.

James Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy. @BeijingPalmer

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers Chinese government influence in the United States. @BethanyAllenEbr

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