SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Tuesday criticised 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 on 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.
Australia’s government already adheres to the one-China policy, which means it does not recognise 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 Defence Minister Marise Payne, who said businesses should make their own decisions.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had noted Bishop’s comments but that she was not sure what Bishop was trying to say.
“Because there is only one China in the world. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau have always been part of China this is an objective fact and a matter of international consensus,” Hua told a daily news briefing.
“When it comes to a matter like this it is not a procedural or technical issue but a major political issue,” she said.
Self-ruled and democratic Taiwan is claimed by Beijing as a Chinese territory, and has become one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint. Hong Kong and Macau are former European colonies that are now part of China but run largely autonomously.
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 rumoured 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.
Reporting by Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Philip Wen in Beijing; Editing by Sam Holmes, Richard Pullin and Michael Perry