Vietnam’s move to ban the Warner Bros. film “Barbie” from domestic distribution over a scene showing China’s claimed territory in the South China Sea encapsulates an age-old territorial dispute between the two countries, experts said.
A nine-dash line encompassing about 90% of the South China Sea has appeared on Chinese maps since the 1950s. More recently, China has been aggressive about exercising its claimed sovereignty, to the consternation of the other countries bordering the sea.
Among them is Vietnam, which has rejected China’s claim for decades as an illegal violation of its sovereignty and security — a position endorsed by an international tribunal in 2016.
This week, Hanoi asked Netflix to remove the Chinese-made romance drama series “Flight to You” from its service in Vietnam because multiple episodes showed a map with the nine-dash line. Netflix complied, according to the entertainment media outlet Variety.
Last week, Vietnam also banned the release of the Warner Bros. film “Barbie,” originally scheduled be released in the country next week, because of a scene in the movie showing a map that appears to depict the nine-dash line.
The Philippines, another nation with jurisdictional dispute with China, announced Wednesday that after extensive deliberations it has decided to let the film be shown there.
Also last week, Vietnam ordered the inspection of a website of iMe, a promoter of the K-pop girl group Blackpink, which was scheduled to perform its first concert in Hanoi this month.
‘A strong signal’
Prashanth Parameswaran, the founder of the weekly ASEAN Wonk newsletter and a fellow with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, said, “Vietnam’s response sends a strong signal that the government does not recognize the legitimacy of the nine-dash line and will take actions to demonstrate its commitment to this.”
Vietnam’s Cinema Department under its Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism reviewed all 39 episodes of “Flight to You,” according to Variety, and said a map showing the nine-dash line depicted in nine episodes of “Flight to You” is “inappropriate.”
Regarding the “Barbie” ban, Vi Kien Thanh, head of the Cinema Department, said on July 3 the film “contains the offending images of the nine-dash line.”
About the Blackpink promotor’s website, Le Thanh Liem, inspector of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said on July 5 that the ministry is looking into the matter.
On July 6, Pham Thu Hang, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said, “The promotion and usage of products or publications featuring the nine-dash line in Vietnam is a violation of Vietnam’s law and is unacceptable.”
Warner Bros. said on July 6 the dashed lines in the film are a “whimsical, child-like crayon” scribble tracing a “make-believe journey from Barbie Land to the real world” and do not represent China’s nine-dash line.
That explanation appears to have satisfied a movie classification board in the Philippines, which cited it as grounds for letting the film be shown after “having exhausted all possible resources” in making its decision. The board said it would ask Warner Bros. to blur part of the scene showing the map with the dashed line.
Additionally, on July 6 in Vietnam, iMe apologized for an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and pledged to replace images that are inappropriate for Vietnamese audiences, according to Tuoi Tre News.
Cleo Paskal, a non-resident fellow for the China Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said, “This is a matter of national sovereignty and security to Vietnam — things it perceives as under attack, including from frequent PRC incursions into its waters.”
China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Paskal continued, “Vietnam is also signaling to neighbors that standing up to China is imperative.”
Ruling against China
An international tribunal at The Hague ruled in 2016 that China had no legal basis to claim the line as its maritime border.
Based on the ruling, not only Vietnam but the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, all countries surrounding the nine-dash line, have been refuting the disputed border.
Bates Gill, executive director for Asia Society’s Center for China Analysis, said via email, “In official maps of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ appears to encircle almost all of the South China Sea, signaling that expansive area within the line belongs to China.”
He continued that aside from Vietnam, “a number of other governments – including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – also claim territory either within or near the nine-dashed line.”
Chinese ships often make incursions into the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of these countries to exercise China’s claim on the territory.
A country’s EEZ extends 200 nautical miles out from its coast.
The U.S. has been patrolling the South China Sea to exercise the freedom of navigation in the area against Chinese aggressions.
Late last month, India reversed its previous stance and supported the 2016 ruling in a joint statement released with the Philippines.
Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo said in the statement after their meeting in New Delhi from June 27 to 30 that the dispute over the nine-dash line should be resolved in line with the 2016 ruling.
At the time, China’s Foreign Ministry described the 2016 ruling as “null and void and has no binding force.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington on Friday referred the VOA Korean Service to its Foreign Ministry comments when asked about Vietnam’s rejection of the nine dash-line on a map shown in “Barbie.”
“Relevant country should not link the South China Sea issue with normal cultural exchange,” Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on July 4.
Promoting disputed line
According to Bich Tran, a fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Beijing has disregarded the international ruling.
“Beijing has actively promoted the line, and due to the size of the Chinese market, companies face pressure to please China by showing the controversial line on their products [or] websites,” Tran said in a video interview.
“In the case of the Blackpink concert, the map was clear, and an apology statement was issued by iMe. It becomes more complicated in the case of Barbie. The map is abstract, but there is a dashed line that reminds people of the nine-dash line,” he continued.
“I believe the film producer wants to have it both ways. On one hand, they can please China and have access to the Chinese market. On the other hand, they make the map so abstract that they have plausible deniability,” Tran said.
China has been engaged in a campaign to promote the disputed dashed line as its southern maritime border through scholarly journal articles as well as items like maps, globes, postcards and T-shirts.
Paskal at the FDD said, “Vietnam know that the PRC starts on the political warfare front — making grand territorial claims based on little fact, then repeats those claims to the point that they become normalized and a challenge to the claims is perceived as an ‘offense’ to China.”
Last year, Vietnam prohibited Sony film “Uncharted” and, in 2019, banned DreamWorks’ animation “Abominable” for showing a map containing the nine-dash line.