BEIJING — You can book a ticket to Taipei from New York on a major American airline. Just don’t ask them which country you are going to.
Bowing to pressure from China, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines began to remove references to Taiwan, of which Taipei is the capital city, as a separate country from their websites Wednesday.
American, which was the first to make the switch, listed Taipei Taoyuan International Airport, the city’s main airport, as a destination for travelers looking to book a flight on its website, with no reference to Taiwan. Delta listed only Taipei and the code for the city’s airports.
The American carriers were among the last holdouts against a Chinese effort to force all airlines to drop any references to Taiwan as a separate country. Beijing regards the self-ruled democratic island as a breakaway province.
While many major international carriers now designate Taiwan as a part of China, the American carriers stopped short of that step.
But changes to the websites were inconsistent on Wednesday: A user booking a ticket on Delta, for example, could not search for Taiwan as a destination but would have encountered the island’s name elsewhere in the process. The Chinese version of United’s website used the airport code TPE, for Taipei Taoyuan International, while the English version included TW, which is the country code for Taiwan.
Companies doing business in China often find themselves struggling to balance the demands of an increasingly nationalistic government against calls from rights groups and politicians that they should not give in to Beijing. The White House, for example, had described the Chinese website order as “Orwellian nonsense.”
“We have another example of nonsovereign entities contorting themselves to satisfy Chinese pressure,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, a nonprofit organization that works to develop trade and business ties between the United States and Taiwan.
“That bodes ill for the future, frankly, in respect of the hoops that everyone is jumping through to try to satisfy China’s goals and objectives here,” he added.
An official at Taiwan’s presidential office said that Taiwan is exploring possible litigation over the issue.
“Taiwan has been closely interconnected with the world, and defending our shared democratic values on the front-line,” Taiwan’s presidential spokesman Alex Huang said. “That is a fact which cannot be easily erased by simply removing the name of Taiwan from the internet. The people of Taiwan will not bow to pressure.”
In April, the Civil Aviation Administration of China sent a letter to 44 foreign airlines demanding they change their websites if Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau were classified as countries. Both Hong Kong and Macau are semiautonomous Chinese territories with their own laws.
In recent months, many international airlines including British Airways and Lufthansa have given in to China’s request. Lufthansa, for example, refers to Taipei as a destination in “Taiwan, China.”
Yuan Zheng, director of United States foreign relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank in Beijing, said the Chinese authorities could have fined airlines that failed to comply, restrict their entry into the Chinese market or remove the carriers’ apps and booking systems in China.
But even if Beijing chose not to take action, ignoring China’s request could have cost the American carriers business from Chinese customers, Mr. Yuan said.
China is projected to overtake the United States to become the world’s largest aviation market, and American companies have been trying to gain a foothold in the growing market with investments and code-sharing arrangements. Delta owns a stake in China Eastern Airlines and American owns shares of China Southern Airlines, while United has a partnership with Air China.
A spokeswoman for American Airlines, Shannon Gilson, said that the airline “is implementing changes to address China’s request.”
“Air travel is global business, and we abide by the rules in countries where we operate,” Ms. Gilson said in an email. Representatives for Delta and United did not immediately reply to requests for comment on the situation.
At a regular Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing on Wednesday, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “We have noticed that so far some positive developments have been made around this matter, and the foreign airlines have made corrections.”
“We welcome their investments in China,” he added.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has been increasing pressure on Taiwan. The island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has called on the international community to “constrain” China. On Tuesday, the East Asian Olympic Committee revoked its decision to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games in Taichung, a city in Taiwan, bowing to Chinese pressure, according to news reports.
A growing number of American companies have in recent months tried to appease Beijing. In January, the authorities in Shanghai temporarily shut down the website of the hotel chain Marriott International for labeling Taiwan and Tibet, a region of China, as separate countries. In May, the clothing retailer Gap also issued an apology to China after a map of a T-shirt sold in North America did not depict Taiwan as part of China.
Zach Wichter contributed reporting from New York, and Chris Horton from Taipei, Taiwan. Elsie Chen contributed research from Beijing.
Follow Sui-Lee Wee on Twitter: @suilee.