Government mulls legal action amid Chinese pressure on airlines

In late April, China's Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) sent a letter to 44 foreign air carriers, saying that their websites' references to Taiwan violate Chinese law and go against its one-China policy that sees Taiwan as part of its territory.

The letter requested that these companies immediately revise their websites or face possible retaliatory action.

The demand was later denounced by the U.S. administration as "Orwellian nonsense." Canada, the United Kingdom and other democratic countries have also voiced dissatisfaction over the Chinese move.

Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesman Andrew Lee (???) also repeatedly urged the airlines not to belittle Taiwan or damage its sovereignty and dignity by bowing to Chinese bullying.

"As an independent and sovereign nation, the people of Taiwan will not be subdued by any threat or intimidation, and any such attempts will only stir resentment from the people of Taiwan toward the Chinese government," Lee added.

But many of the airlines have complied, referring to Taiwanese destinations such as Taipei as being in Taiwan, China or Taiwan, CN.

As of May 25, 18 of the 44 airlines had changed their websites. The remaining 26 had requested an extension until July 25 due to technical reasons, a request that was granted by China's CAA.

In the latest press conference held July 13, China's CAA said only six airlines among the 44 had yet to comply.

To squeeze Taiwan internationally

With the clock ticking, Taiwan is waiting to see if the rest of the carriers will bow to Beijing's pressure.

Beijing's decision to ask private airlines to change their designation of Taiwan on their websites is part of the authoritarian government's measures to annihilate Taiwan's international space.

China has already persuaded four of the nation's diplomatic allies to switch recognition since President Tsai Ing-wen (???) took office in May, 2016. Currently, the island nation only has 18 allies worldwide.

Tsai's recognition of the existence of a "1992 meeting" but not the "1992 consensus" in her inaugural speech has reduced Beijing's willingness to engage with her government. Relations between Taipei and Beijing have cooled since then.

Facing China's behavior, Taiwan's call to airlines apparently have not received positive responses. Some have urged Taiwan's government to take more concrete action other than paying only lip service.

In an article published online May 19, J. Michael Cole, chief editor at Taiwan Sentinel, a local news and commentary website, suggested that the government could consider legal action against Beijing's bullying.

"If Beijing wants to use its laws to blackmail the international community in its bid to isolate a democracy, we, too, can turn to the courts to exact some punishment," Cole said in the article published at Taiwan Sentinel.

Cole suggested that Taiwan and its allies make the case that China's demands, and the compliance of foreign airlines, violate consumer rights.

"One possibility is taking this to arbitration at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Another option would be for groups of citizens (or Taiwan's CAA), to initiate a class action lawsuit in Taiwan (or other jurisdictions) against airlines that gave in to Chinese pressure, which in so doing are consequently in violation of Taiwan's jurisdiction and domestic laws," he added.

His opinion soon received support from government officials.

Speaking to the Financial Times last month, David Lee (???), secretary-general of Taiwan's National Security Council (NSC), told the newspaper that Taiwan is considering taking action to counter Beijing's pressure on the airlines, including legal action and encouraging a boycott of carriers that comply.

"We will tell our people: 'Those are the airlines that caved in to China, it is your choice (whether to use them),'" Lee was quoted as saying by the newspaper June 17.

Lee said that although pursuing legal action against the companies involved would be a complex process and "may take two to three years" to obtain a ruling, "it is a signal we are fighting back, that we won't just sit idle here," the Financial Times reported.

Legal action feasible?

Legal action sounds a reasonable approach to hit back at Beijing's demands. But whether it is feasible remains in doubt to many.

Asked to comment on the proposal, ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (???) urged the government to think long and hard before pursuing legal action, since such efforts could prove "expensive and time consuming."

Lo, a member of the Legislature's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, told CNA that the government needs to think through the possible scenarios should it decide to pursue legal action over the matter.

"The government should first clarify who suffers most from Beijing's act to pressure foreign airlines to describe Taiwan as part of China, and study where and when to file a possible legal suit accordingly," said Lo, an assistant professor at Taipei-based Soochow University's Department of Political Science.

Whether the legal suit should be filed at the WTO, in which Taiwan is a member, or in the countries where these airlines are located needs to be considered, he said.

The government should also consider what kind of decision it has a chance of winning before deciding whether to take legal action.

"Or the decision will be very expensive, time consuming and to no avail," Lo said.

A source familiar with international litigation also told CNA that currently, no Taiwanese airlines have been pressured by China into changing the country's designation, making it difficult for Taiwan to take legal action at the WTO on the grounds that Taiwanese customers' interests have been jeopardized.

It is also highly unlikely that Taiwan could ask other countries, including the U.S. and Japan, to file a lawsuit on its behalf, since both countries have airlines that have chosen to change Taiwan's designation, the source noted.

Also, whether Taiwanese customers' interests are being harmed is debatable, since the name change has not yet caused financial losses to airline customers, the source said.

All these factors make it very difficult for the government to take legal action in the case, the source added.

Meanwhile, asked to comment on the latest development of the possible lawsuit, MOFA's Lee said the government has not made a final decision on whether to take legal action.

"Such measures are still being discussed and evaluated. We will make the final decision as to if and when to take action by making the national interest our top priority," he said.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel