SYDNEY - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Tuesday criticized China for pressuring Qantas Airways Ltd. to change its website to refer to Taiwan as a Chinese territory, in comments likely to ramp up tensions between the two countries.
Qantas said Monday it had decided to comply with a request from Beijing to remove references on their websites or in other material that suggest Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are part of countries independent from China.
The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration sent a notice to 36 foreign airlines in April, asking them to comply with Beijing’s standards of referring to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as Chinese territories.
Despite Taiwan having been governed separately for about seven decades, with its own government and own military, China considers the democratic island a renegade part of its territory to be brought back into the fold, by force if necessary.
In late May, several foreign airlines were still listing Taiwan as a country, including Qantas, Australia’s national carrier.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told reporters at an annual meeting of global airlines in Sydney that “our intention is to meet the requirements,” but there were some technical delays.
“We have some complexity to work through. This is not just a Qantas airline, it’s a Qantas Group piece that needs to be adjusted,” Qantas International chief Alison Webster added.
She said the carrier had been given an extension to make the changes.
Australia’s government already adheres to the “One China” policy, which means it does not recognize Taiwan as a country.
However, Bishop said in an emailed statement that how Qantas structured its website was a matter for the company.
“Private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments,” she said.
Her comments were later echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Defense Minister Marise Payne, who said businesses should make their own decisions.
Sino-Australian relations have soured in recent months, just two years into a free trade pact, after Canberra accused Beijing of interfering in its domestic affairs.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referenced “disturbing reports of Chinese meddling” when he announced plans in late 2017 to introduce tough new legislation to limit foreign influence, including a ban on offshore political donations.
China denied the allegations, and lodged a formal diplomatic protest.
Despite sustained Australian lobbying, the row intensified last month when Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates Ltd., the world’s biggest listed winemaker, said it faced delays at Chinese customs and Canberra said “four or five” other wine exporters had since experienced similar problems.
Before the latest comments, analysts had suggested Australia may be forced into offering a concession to Beijing, such as allowing Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to bid to build the country’s 5G telecommunications network.
Such a move would mark a significant about-turn after Canberra banned the Chinese company from bidding to build Australia’s broadband network in 2012, citing concerns over Huawei’s rumored close ties to China’s government.
Australia has yet to rule Huawei out of the running, and the Chinese firm has ramped up public lobbying.
“Companies like Huawei are privately owned, not owned by any committee or any government, and should be looked at and put into a competitive tendering,” John Lord, chairman of Huawei’s Australia unit, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Monday.