by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Arpingstone/WikiCommons/CC
CHINA’S STRATAGEM to force airlines to remove mention of “Taiwan” as a separate country on their websites seems to have been a largely successful one. This can be observed in microcosm with the example of Qantas Airlines, an Australian airline which initially resisted impositions by China, but even buckled.
It is not surprising why airlines would decide to agree to China’s demands, in the face of any alternatives. Airlines are, after all, businesses first and foremost. If airlines risk offending their Taiwanese customers by listing Taiwan as a part of China, they risk being blocked from the Chinese market if they do not comply with China’s demands. China is and will always be a larger and more important market for airlines operating internationally. As should be obvious, China will always be larger than Taiwan.
One notes that airlines which resisted China’s orders to resist listing Taiwan as part of China felt were mostly carriers from western countries. The two most prominent examples were the United States and Australia, in which China ordering American and Australian carriers around led to criticism from American and Australian government officials.
Given the current debate raging in Australia about Chinese influence on Australian government officials, this led government officials such as foreign minister Julie Bishop to express concern about China forcing Australia listing Taiwan as part of its territories. On the other hand, seeing as Trump administration spokespersons have never shied away from controversy and tensions are recurrent between the Trump administration and China, this would lead to the Trump administration famously condemning China’s actions as “Orwellian nonsense.”
However, two things must be noted here. Western countries as Australia or America reacting against China forcing their national carriers to list Taiwan as part of China does not necessarily mean sticking up for Taiwan. In reacting against Chinese actions, neither Australia or America have seen fit to take a stronger stance in favor of Taiwan, but simply reacted against Chinese encroachments on their sovereignty in ordering their national carriers around. Even if the Trump administration has kept up invective against China with regards to the issue, it seems unlikely that they would take any action to force or punish American airlines for listing Taiwan as a part of China, and so it is unlikely that airlines would be willing to pay heavy prices for defying China.
That is, while airlines may take some form of action to placate their Taiwanese customers for fear of offending them too much, airlines seem fundamentally unlikely to shake the boat on the issue of Taiwan and China beyond a certain point. Again, airlines are fundamentally businesses, and so their actions are dictated by economic interest. Sticking up for Taiwan beyond a certain point would be irrational. Airlines also know that they are replaceable and so if they are blocked from the Chinese market, they can simply be replaced by other carriers. This is likely to eventually take place even if the Trump administration has taken to urging American carriers not to comply—after all, it is not as though American airlines will be punished by the American government for not complying with China.
In the past, Chinese consumers have seen fit to boycott companies that they saw as going against Chinese interests. This can be seen with the boycott of South Korean food chain Lotte for allowing for construction of the THAAD anti-missile defense system to protect against missile threats from China and North Korea on land that it owned. Calls for boycotts of Taiwanese or Hong Kong entertainers perceived as pro-independence also take place periodically.
At other times, the Chinese government has suggested that it may compile a list of businesses who are deemed “pro-Taiwan” and block them from operating in China, as a way to sway Taiwanese businesses to act on behalf of Chinese interests in Taiwan. The Chinese government has also long attempted to use taishang—Taiwanese businessmen operating in China—as a political force which will act in its interest in Taiwan.
However, China has historically been more comfortable strong-arming Taiwan—which it sees as part of its integral territory—or countries in its vicinity which China has long contended with geopolitically, far beyond the arrival of western modernity in Asia.
Western nations—America being the obvious elephant in the room—are perceived as a greater threat by China. And so it represents growing confidence on the part of China that China is willing to threaten western companies to comply with its Taiwan policy.
It proves a clever strategy for China to try and influence how airlines list Taiwan on their websites, since that will influence perceptions of all foreign visitors traveling to Taiwan as to what Taiwan’s highly confusing geopolitical status vis-a-vis China is. Similarly, for Taiwanese traveling abroad and returning by airplane, this will reinforce their sense that the international world perceives Taiwan as part of China. Measures to deal with such actions by China need to be carefully thought of, then.