BEIJING — Tensions between Washington and Beijing have spilled into a new and unexpected battleground: the pull-down menus on airline websites, where customers click on departures and destinations.
After the White House on Saturday accused the Chinese government of “Orwellian nonsense” for ordering 36 airline companies to purge their websites of references to Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs struck back on Sunday.
In effect, the ministry told foreign companies that obeying official Chinese demands on how to refer to these areas would be the price of doing business in China.
“No matter what the U.S. side says, nothing will alter the objective fact that there is only one China in the world, and that the Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan regions are inseparable parts of Chinese territory,” a spokesman, Geng Shuang, said on the ministry’s website.
He added, “It must be pointed out that foreign firms doing business in China should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by Chinese laws and respect the national feelings of the Chinese people.”
The White House said that Beijing had sent a letter to the airlines, including those based in the United States, telling them to purge their signage of references to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau that, in the eyes of Chinese officials, left the impression that these locations were not part of China.
“This is Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement.
“China’s efforts to export its censorship and political correctness to Americans and the rest of the free world will be resisted,” she said.
Mr. Geng did not mention Ms. Sanders’s swipe about “Orwellian nonsense,” nor did he say how China would enforce its wishes on the websites and the promotional materials of foreign companies. But he said these companies should follow official Chinese orders.
After President Trump took office, he tried to foster a cordial relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and Mr. Trump says he and Mr. Xi are friends. But ties between China and the United States have become increasingly strained over Mr. Trumps complaints that trade and investment flows and rules are significantly skewed in China’s favor.
Talks on those complaints, which ended in Beijing on Friday, appeared to make little progress.
The flare-up over the airline websites showed that the Chinese government has its own acute sensitivities, especially over territorial issues — even in the obscure lists of countries and regions found on airline websites.
Taiwan’s status has been in dispute since 1949, when National forces fleeing the Communists set up their government there. Tensions have risen in recent years because Beijing distrusts Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen. She is skeptical of closer ties between authoritarian China and Taiwan, which has been a democracy since the 1990s.
Hong Kong has also become an increasingly sensitive issue for Beijing, which has tried to extend its influence over the former British colony, despite its distinct status as an administration region with its own laws. Chinese officials have been especially incensed by a small group of activists in Hong Kong who want it to seek independence.
The letter to the airlines appeared to add to growing Chinese efforts to influence how foreign companies refer to Taiwan and Hong Kong and other sensitive areas. In January, Delta Air Lines apologized for “an inadvertent error” after the Chinese authorities said it had listed Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website.
In January, Chinese officials temporarily suspended the Chinese website of Marriott International, accusing the hotel chain of listing Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries.
Marriott promised that it would “absolutely not support any separatist organization that will undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”