Delta, United and American face showdown with China over Taiwan

CNN/ Newswire | 7/24/2018, 9 a.m.
Big US airlines could soon hit political turbulence in China. Major carriers including United, American and Delta are among those ...
A Delta Airlines jet sits on the tarmac

Daniel Shane

(CNN Money) -- Big US airlines could soon hit political turbulence in China.

Major carriers including United, American and Delta are among those that were given a Wednesday deadline by Beijing to change how their global websites refer to Taiwan.

The showdown has been looming for months. The Chinese government wrote to more than 40 international airlines earlier this year demanding they remove from their websites any information that suggests Taiwan is not part of China.

Many airlines, such as Australia's Qantas, Air Canada and Air India, have already changed their websites. Others, including the big American airlines, have not.

China and Taiwan have been governed separately since 1949 following the Communist victory on the mainland after a civil war, although a shared cultural and linguistic heritage mostly endures.

But China considers Taiwan to be an integral part of its territory, and comes down hard on any suggestions to the contrary.

Taiwan has called out companies that have changed their websites. In May, it berated Air Canada on Twitter, accusing the airline of buckling under pressure.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, the island's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu urged global airlines to deal with the issue in a way that means not folding in the face of Chinese pressure.

Airlines can "list Taiwan cities as cities, without listing whether it belongs to one country or another," said Wu. "That's a flexible way of getting out of the Chinese pressure."

The instructions from China also provoked a strong reaction from the United States earlier in the year. The White House slammed the demands as "Orwellian nonsense," describing them as "part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies."

But international airlines, and other global brands, are caught in a bind. It's vital for their business that they stay in China's good books. The International Air Transport Association forecast last year that China would surpass the United States as the world's top aviation market by 2020.

Other airlines that currently refer to Taiwan in a way that indicates it is in China include Germany's Lufthansa and British Airways.

China's Civil Aviation Administration told state-run media on July 13 that the vast majority of airlines it had spoken to agreed to make the changes months ago. The handful that still had not cited "technical issues," according to the industry regulator.

As of Tuesday — a day before the deadline — the websites of United, American Airlines and Delta all appear to describe destinations in Taiwan as a separate political entity, rather than as part of China.

Spokespeople for all three US airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they planned to change their websites before the deadline.

What happens if companies don't comply?

China hasn't spelled out what the punishments might be for airlines that fail to comply with its demands.

Earlier this year, it blocked Marriott websites and apps for a week in the country after the company listed Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as separate countries in emails and apps.