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China’s ‘nine-dash line’ South China Sea claims trip up Barbie, BlackPink in Vietnam

Vietnam has banned distribution of “Barbie” because the Hollywood movie includes a map showing China’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, state media reported, as angry netizens called for a boycott of a tour by the popular K-Pop group BlackPink for the same alleged offense.

The planned July 21 release of the Warner Brothers feature film, starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as her boyfriend Ken, has been scrapped by the Central Council of Feature Film Evaluation and Classification, state media reported, citing Vi Kien Thanh, head of the Vietnam Cinema Department. 

“‘Barbie’ is banned from screening in Vietnam for featuring a map depicting the illicit ‘nine-dash line’ that China uses to illegally claim its sovereignty over most of the East Vietnam Sea,” the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said.

“Vietnam had earlier either blocked many films or removed some from cinemas as these movies, mainly produced by China, contain the illegal nine-dash line map,” the English-language report said. All cinema chains across Vietnam had pulled the movie, it added.

Attempts by Radio Free Asia to reach Warner Brothers for comment were unsuccessful.

The nine-dash line is a boundary used by Beijing on its maps to demarcate territorial claims over most of the South China Sea, including sections of the waterway that fall within areas claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.

For example, the line – often literally consisting of nine dashes on a map encompassing the entire South China Sea – includes the Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam and the Spratly Islands claimed by the Philippines. And it wasn’t immediately evident what role the map played in the movie.

K-Pop group BlackPink arrives at MTV Video Music Awards in Newark, Aug. 28, 2022. Angry netizens called for a boycott of a tour by BlackPink for including a “nine-dash line” map of the South China Sea, showing China’s territorial claims. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision via AP via RFA
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The problem has emerged before. In 2019, Vietnam halted showings of the DreamWorks film “Abominable” over a scene that showed the “nine-dash line” and drew an outcry among viewers. Netflix offerings including “Pine Gap,” “Madam Secretary,”  and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” also ran afoul of Hanoi over the sea map.

The dust over the Barbie row had barely settled when angry Vietnamese netizens started calling for boycotting a concert by the South Korea K-Pop band BlackPink, after they said concert promoters of the “Born Pink World Tour Hanoi” scheduled for late July also had shared the “nine-dash line” map of the South China Sea.

State media quoted Le Thanh Liem, chief inspector of the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as saying on Wednesday that a ministry department was conducting checks to verify the reported use of  the map on the homepage of iMe Entertainment Co. and its Vietnam fan page.

The map or related links could not be seen on the websites on Wednesday.

The Philippines might follow suit

Following Vietnam’s ban of “Barbie” on Tuesday,  the Philippine Movie and Television Review and Classification Board said it was also reviewing whether to approve the release of the film in cinemas. Last year, the film review board pulled the Hollywood action movie “Uncharted” from Philippine cinemas over a scene showing the “nine-dash line.”

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and threw out China’s expansive claims in the waterway, but Beijing has never recognized the ruling.

Australian actor Margot Robbie walks during an event to promote the Warner Bros. film “Barbie” in Seoul, July 2023. Photo by Jung Yeon-je/AFP via RFA

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters that “China’s position on the South China Sea issue is clear and consistent.”

“We believe that the countries concerned should not link the South China Sea issue with normal cultural and people-to-people exchanges,” Mao said at a daily briefing on Tuesday.

Despite Mao’s assertions, China has a history of pressuring foreign retailers, fashion firms, hotels and airlines over perceived misrepresentation of its borders, including that with self-governing Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty.

Although some voices in Vietnam said banning Barbie over the map was oversensitive, South China Sea expert Dinh Kim Phuc told RFA Vietnamese that Hanoi had to act in order to prevent China from propagating its claims in the contested waterway.

“If (authorities) let it be shown throughout the territory of Vietnam, China would make a point that Vietnam has accepted the nine-dash line–that is to say, accepted China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea,” said Phuc.

Phuc, a former lecturer at the Open University of Ho Chi Minh City, said Vietnam reacts sharply to seemingly small slights in order to drive home the point that it does not accept the nine-dash line, to win international support for the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, and to protect its sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea.

Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer called the Vietnamese moves “an overreaction, and it distracts the public from China’s aggressive behavior that has been taking place.”

“If Vietnam kept quiet, how would anyone know?” asked Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia.

The Liaoning aircraft carrier is accompanied by navy frigates and submarines conducting an exercise in the South China Sea in 2018. Photo by Li Gang/Xinhua/AP via CNA

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