Taiwan has made huge strides in improving and raising its image internationally. It has done this, for example, via smart branding and marketing investments, higher production values in film and the quality of products and services exported, and making Taiwan more visible and accessible to foreign tourists.
Having a president who will not self-censor herself from saying the word Taiwan on the international stage emboldens Taiwanese to likewise stand tall as Taiwanese with dignified, modest pride in global events and exchanges.
Athletes Hsieh Su-wei (謝淑薇) and Tseng Chun-hsin (曾俊欣) excelled at Wimbledon, and a Taiwanese company was responsible for producing the environmentally friendly yarn for kits that half of the 32 teams wore at the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
These developments are positive in terms of Taiwan’s “soft power” and visibility globally.
However, there remains no doubt that, at the same time, Taiwan’s international space and visibility are being severely attacked and degraded by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has been blackmailing and bribing foreign governments and global corporations into de facto annexing Taiwan into a subset of “China.”
The craven capitulation of 44 international airlines into changing their Web sites, finally ending with the farce of the US Department of State all but ordering US airlines to amend their sites’ listing of Taiwan to appease Beijing illustrates the global reach of China’s “hard power.”
China has successfully used its economic weight and the greed of foreign corporations and weak yuan-indebted governments that serve them to force others to conform to its hegemonic agenda.
Sadly, when asked about kowtowing to Chinese bullying, the airlines’ responses were illogical and contradictory, highlighting how the perceived economic benefits of “toeing the line” outweigh the reality of Taiwan’s existence and the feelings of 23 million potential customers.
“Air travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate,” American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said.
Likewise, when I first asked Air France-KLM for a comment on why they had changed their site listing Taiwan as “Taiwan, China,” the response was: “We’re aware of this and will amend it again to use more neutral wording.”
When that promise did not materialize I was told that “KLM and Air France are complying with the requirements of the CAAC [Civil Aviation Administration of China] and Chinese authorities regarding Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
This is an absurd answer on several levels, but it is also deeply concerning.
First, the CAAC does not administer nor have any control over the Taipei flight area or sovereign airspace over or around Taiwan. That is the sole remit of Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Air France-KLM here is equating Taiwan with Hong Kong, as if Taiwan were a special administrative region of the PRC.
It is also de facto recognizing that the CAAC has authority in Taiwan, which no doubt will confuse Air France-KLM pilots flying into Taiwanese airspace only to find that it is the CAA and its regulations they have to abide by.
Of course, KLM and its pilots know no substantive change has been made other than to placate China by letting it think “Taiwan, China” on a Web site means it agrees Taiwan is part of China — except that KLM and the other airlines have not placated China, but played themselves right into a corner — exactly where Beijing wants them.
They have not placated China’s feelings, only emboldened it to shift the line further.
Witness how the US airlines partially modified their sites to show only city names. China’s response was that it is not enough. The world awaits to see if the airlines will cave in completely.
The responses from American Airlines and KLM are also illogical.
If we accept them at face value, then surely the CAA can make the equally absurd demand that international airlines comply with Taiwanese authorities’ requirements and amend their Web sites to show “Taiwan, ROC [Republic of China],” “Mainland, ROC,” “Hong Kong, ROC,” and “Macau, ROC.”
Of course, all of this misses the wider point, which is that the CAAC has no authority whatsoever to demand that airlines change the content of their Web sites to fit Chinese policy for any Web site hosted or viewed outside of China.
Foreign airlines can list countries names however they want for Chinese site users on a simplified Chinese Web site, but otherwise, no Chinese rules apply outside China.
Sadly it appears that this is no longer the case, despite there being nothing in International Civil Aviation Organization regulations in this regard.
It is not a matter of aviation safety, it is just Beijing wanting to force the world to pretend that Taiwan is a part of its territory, despite the visible and concrete reality to the contrary.
It is yet another example of Beijing successfully buying, lobbying and pressuring other nations and corporations into compliance in sovereign territories, events and languages where they have no legal right to impose their censorship.
China is not alone in the world in constantly lobbying to make a neighboring nation it wishes to completely annex invisible on the international stage.
This strategy of incessantly chiding, complaining, falsely posturing as a victim while carrying out acts of naked aggression and blackmailing other nations to achieve targeted outcomes is successful for China because other nations — specifically multinational corporations — have sold off their sovereign foreign policy and company strategy to the pursuit of pure profit over any long-term concept of principle, dispensing caution to the wind with no thought for the possible consequences ahead.
Do they really think they can placate or appease China? Do they think China will now stop, satisfied with this result? Will they push back when China moves the line again and makes further demands?
Do they have any understanding of the Chinese government or its clearly and regularly restated policies and positions regarding its regional military, territorial and political aspirations?
What will be the bottom line? Will it ultimately involve the browbeaten nations of the world crying out “are you happy now?” as they finally cave in and formally recognize that Taiwan and its millions of citizens belong to the PRC?
For Taiwan, regardless of which party is in power, there is seemingly little that it can directly do to reverse this ominous trend.
The pro-China parties, such as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), seem to regard “unification delayed, but the eventual unavoidable outcome” as the “solution” that will bring peace at a cost they are willing to “bear” because for them “Taiwanese” is a subset of the Chinese ethnos, and the pride and unity of the Chinese nation as a whole is their overriding concern.
For pro-Taiwan parties, such as the Democratic Progressive Party government, they can continue to work hard on building Taiwan’s soft power internationally, but a confrontation with China cannot be avoided if Beijing is seeking confrontation, which its constant goading and probing clearly indicate.
Perhaps one way for the government to stand up for Taiwanese would be to make a similar demand on airlines and any international company that, if they want to have offices in Taiwan and for their Web sites to be accessible in Taiwan, then in Taiwan all references to the name of the nation needs to follow the rule of “Taiwan (ROC)” or the sites and offices will be closed down until those permanent changes are made.
Taiwanese might have to suffer indignities of being invisible, nameless, or reduced to “Taipei” abroad, but they should not have to at home.
Landing and exit cards and visa stamps likewise should prominently feature the same nomenclature and leave no foreign visitors, those from China included, under the impression that Taiwan is anything other than what it already clearly is — an independent, democratic nation.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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