Australian companies are being warned they could soon find themselves joining Qantas in coming under pressure to cave into demands from China.
The airline has joined several of its rivals in bowing to pressure from Beijing to change their websites so they refer to Taiwan as a Chinese territory rather than an independent state.
The request, which came from China’s main aviation regulator in April, has sparked concern within the federal government.
Dr Sow Keat Tok, a lecturer with the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, expects it’s a taste of things to come for other Australian companies as China exerts its growing political and economic power.
He believes Qantas and other airlines complied with China’s demand over Taiwan out of fear their landing slots at China’s airports could be cut at a time when tourism is booming there.
“Given the close economic ties between Australia and China it makes sense for Qantas to make a market decision to conform to the Chinese demands,” Dr Tok told AAP on Tuesday.
“It’s better from the corporate perspective to have China on your side than not on because China’s influence is getting a lot bigger over time.”
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has defended the airline’s decision to change the way it refers to Taiwan, saying it is in line with Australia’s One China policy, which does not recognise Taiwan as an independent nation despite it having a separate government to Beijing.
“It’s very clear that airlines don’t decide what countries are called, governments do,” Fairfax and News Corp reported Mr Joyce saying at the International Air Transport Association conference in Sydney on Tuesday.
“We’re not doing anything different than the Australian government is doing in that case and I think that’s the case with a lot of airlines.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australia has had a One China policy for decades.
“We deal with Taiwan of course… (but) diplomatic relations are with the People’s Republic of China,” he told reporters in Charleville, Queensland.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated her concerns about China’s request to airlines regarding Taiwan but noted that Qantas was free to make its own corporate decisions.
“Private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments,” she said.
Defence Minister Marise Payne echoed that view.
“Our view is that businesses should make their own decisions about how they articulate their website material,” she said.
China’s aviation regulator originally gave 26 airlines operating in the country a deadline of May 25 to comply with an order to refer to the self-governed island as “Taiwan, China” on their websites or face legal action.
Qantas was granted an extension to meet the deadline for the order, which was branded “Orwellian nonsense” by the White House.
Dr Tok said the US had applied similar pressure to countries over the years, including its recent threats to EU member nations over Iran trade sanctions.
“China is not unique,” he said.
“The US has been doing very much the same thing.”