BEIJING — Under pressure from the Chinese government, U.S. airlines are acceding to Beijing’s demand that they change the way they refer to Taiwan — an edit the Trump administration has urged U.S. carriers to resist.
American Airlines wiped Taiwan from its website, and United Airlines said it was working to meet China’s requirements.
The moves come about three months after Beijing ordered dozens of foreign airlines to refer to the island as a Chinese territory or face consequences in the world’s second-largest aviation market.
Less than 24 hours after American Airlines announced it had bent to Beijing’s will, United Airlines indicated it would follow suit.
“United Airlines has begun to roll out changes to its systems to address China’s requirements,” United spokesman Frank Benenati said. “United abides by and respects local laws and regulations in all markets and jurisdictions where we operate and conduct business. United flights to mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will continue to operate normally.”
By Wednesday morning, Chinese users could no longer see the name “Taiwan” on a map of Asia on the American Airlines website, while China, Japan and the Koreas remained. The change is expected to reach all the airline’s online content, although updates may have lagged in some markets, a spokeswoman said.
“Like other carriers, American is implementing changes to address China’s request,” American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said in a statement. “Air travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate.”
American Airlines tweaked its language just hours before Beijing’s July 25 deadline. President Xi Jinping’s government demanded that the airlines stop listing the island online as its own country and instead call it “China Taiwan” or a similar title.
The wording on commercial websites bears no significance over the official status of Taiwan, which Beijing has claimed as part of its territory under its “one-China policy.” But driving U.S. carriers to self-censorship is a symbolic victory for Chinese leaders and an example of the nation’s business leverage.
Taiwan broke 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’s relationship remains fraught, despite a number of talks between the parties in recent years.
Taiwanese leaders condemned China’s airline campaign Wednesday.
“Taiwan is Taiwan,” Lishan Chang, spokesperson for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, said in a statement. “It does not fall under the jurisdiction of China’s government. Taiwan is a democratic nation whose achievements in freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law have won international recognition and are the envy of the people of China, who have no political freedom.”
Chinese officials applauded the “positive developments” by foreign airlines Wednesday without mentioning any specific American carriers.
“We certainly hope that when they operate in China, they must respect China’s laws and regulations, respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and respect the feelings of the Chinese people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
The State Department, however, said airlines should stand their ground.
“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 Tuesday. “We continue to seek to address this issue.”
Disobeying China, however, carries a steep economic risk for airlines in the rapidly expanding market. Roughly 549 million passengers in China took flights last year, compared with 184 million in 2007.
Analysts say Beijing can cripple access to these fliers by ramping up regulations, crashing websites, ordering ticket brokers to shun American carriers and reducing the number of tourists who are allowed to travel to the United States.
The risk of noncompliance is a doozy, said Bob Mann, an airline industry in New York.
“They can’t sell within China,” Mann said.
The Trump administration has called Beijing’s demand “Orwellian nonsense,” but industry groups suggested Wednesday that more U.S. carriers may comply.
Chinese officials have called the matter nonnegotiable and have rejected at least one request from the White House to discuss the issue.
“As with other sectors of the economy, the U.S. airline industry is a global business that must contend with a host of regulations and requirements,” Airlines for America, a lobbying group for the industry, said in a statement. “A4A and the affected U.S airlines appreciate the engagement and counsel we have received from the Administration as carriers begin to implement a solution.”
The aviation deadline arrived less than three weeks after the United States kicked off a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese imports. Beijing retaliated with levies on an equal amount of American goods.
President Trump has vowed to slap duties on an additional $200 billion in Chinese products as early as September.
Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.