Taiwan contemplates retaliating against airlines that refer to it as part of China

Taiwan is considering countermeasures against foreign airlines that have complied with the Chinese government’s demand to change their website references to the island so that it reflects it as being part of the mainland. Although Taiwan has repeatedly condemned the directive as “bullying”, this would be its first official response to the increasing pressure from China.

According to one official from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) who asked not to be identified, Taiwanese authorities are currently studying countermeasures against airlines that have complied with the Chinese demand to change their website references of Taiwan as a “country”, Bloomberg reports.

The Taipei-based United Daily News broke the story on August 6, 2018, writing that the measures would focus on the island’s airports. They could include banning the offending airlines from using boarding bridges as well as changing takeoff and landing slots. In addition, authorities are reportedly considering offering incentives such as reducing or cancelling landing fees and facility charges for carriers that would opt for a more neutral naming of Taiwan.

Hui-Yi Chiang from Civil Aeronautics Administration at the MOTC, said this in an e-mail to AeroTime: “Since Mainland China demanded foreign airlines to change their references to Taiwan on their websites, relevant recommendations raised by related parties were evaluated by the Civil Aeronautics Administration.”

“For these immature recommended practices, they will not be implemented rashly,” Hui-Yi Chiang said when asked about the specifics of the intended penalties. “Any countermeasure will be considered in a comprehensive manner based on the national interest and will be handled properly in accordance with the government policy,” he added.

In February 2018, the Chinese government had instructed airlines to review their website references, and remove any material that identified Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong as independent regions. This was followed by a letter sent to 44 international carriers by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in April 2018, in which the regulator reminded the carriers of the government’s directive. The letter stipulated that Taiwan must henceforth be referred to as either “China Taiwan” or the “China Taiwan region” and that maps must display the island in the same color as mainland China.

Carriers were given a July 25, 2018, deadline to comply with the demand. Failure to implement the changes would result in “disciplinary actions” by the CAAC, it stated. It was unclear what those penalties would be, but in December 2017, Chinese authorities added a clause to rules governing foreign airlines saying regulators could change a company’s permit if it did not meet the demand, Reuters reported at the time. As of June 26, 2018, forty of the 44 airlines, including Air Canada, Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways, Qantas, have changed their website references to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The Taiwanese government responded with a press release condemning China’s “crude attempts to coerce foreign airlines to “downgrade Taiwan’s status”, calling on „all like-minded nations to work closely with it to curb China’s bullying in the international arena and prevent China’s interference in the business practices of other countries from becoming an accepted norm.“

Despite criticism from the White House, which called the CAAC’s letter an “Orwellian nonsense”, the U.S. big three – American, Delta, and United – have complied with China’s request and now refer to destinations in Taiwan on their websites only by the city names of Taipei and Kaohsiung, or by airport codes, without a country name or code. This can be seen with a simple search on American’s route map or United’s list of destinations; a search for an airport in Taiwan on Delta’s website shows the country name referred to as “Taiwan (China)”.

And yet, China states those changes are “incomplete”. According to the CAAC, four U.S. airlines – American, Delta, United, and Hawaiian – had submitted their revisions on July 25, 2018, requesting a two-week extension for website audits, Reuters reports. They have until August 9, 2018, to fully implement the Chinese regulator’s directive.

The long-term ramifications of airlines choosing to bow to the CAAC’s requirements remain to be seen, but it will certainly hurt business. Earlier this year, the hotel chain, Marriot, was reprimanded by Chinese authorities after an e-mail questionnaire listed Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as separate “countries”. Japanese retailer Muji had to pay a fine of around $30,077 (200,000 yuan) for using packaging that identified Taiwan as the “country of origin”.