A Delta passenger jet at Taipei's Taoyuan Airport. Photo: Taiwan Central News Agency

US lawmakers have lashed out at Beijing setting a deadline for US airlines to alter references to Taiwan to eliminate any connotation that the self-ruling island was a sovereign state.

Since Wednesday, United, Delta and American Airlines have removed Taiwan from their country lists and instead started displaying only names of Taiwanese cities they serve. Whereas previously the Taiwanese capital was listed as “Taipei, Taiwan,” it is now listed simply as “Taipei.”

The changes were made just in time to conform to a Wednesday deadline set by Beijing in an ultimatum to global carriers to make how they refer to Taiwan comply with Beijing’s assertions of sovereignty over the island.

In Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the congressional aisle have united in condemnation of Beijing. Republican Senator Cory Gardner and his Democratic counterpart Edward Markey on Thursday convened a subcommittee hearing to discuss China’s diplomatic efforts to isolate Taiwan. The hearing was attended by other US lawmakers who had vented their outrage in either official statements or on social media.

“It’s disappointing that the [airlines] complied with this ultimatum, but the Chinese Communist Party’s obsession with Taiwan — the only democracy on Chinese soil — is pathetic,” said Republic Senator Tom Cotton. “These demands are the mark of insecure, impotent leaders who know the future will not belong to them.”

“US airlines caving to China’s [pressure] is another bad precedent that will only encourage more bullying… [in Beijing’s] attempts to mold the world in its malignant image,” said Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“An edit to a website won’t change the fact that Taiwan exists and is an important US ally,” said Republican US Representative Paul Cook.

Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency reported that Taipei’s de facto embassy in Washington had already expressed deep gratitude to these lawmakers for speaking up for the island.

Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport. Photo: Central News Agency

Beijing is not happy about apparent foot-dragging by the US airlines either, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China said the carriers’ website rectifications were “incomplete and not entirely consistent”, but it didn’t elaborate further.

Some suspect that Beijing is still not satisfied with the workaround that simply pulls the word “Taiwan” from their websites, since as Chinese cadres see it, international airlines should unequivocally categorize Taipei, Kaohsiung and any other Taiwanese cities they fly to under China.

It is also noteworthy that United and Delta have removed “China” from search results for cities on the Chinese mainland.

CAAC noted on Friday that the US trio, as well as Hawaiian Airlines, had on Wednesday sought another two-week extension for them to make tweaks to their websites and booking systems, adding that it would consider whether to take measures “should these changes do not advance further”.

The airlines stressed that thorough changes to their references to Taiwan required time to be put into practice.

It remains unclear how Beijing might punish airlines whose changes are deemed as incomplete, but the CAAC may apply red tape when these airlines apply for more time slots or new routes. China is now the world’s second largest civil aviation market.

A United representative based in Beijing told the Global Times that the airline had already begun to roll out changes to its systems to address China’s requirements.

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