Hollywood is in hot water once again. A growing list of Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia are boycotting American animation studio DreamWorks’ latest film “Abominable” over a map of China.
The movie is a joint production between DreamWorks and the China-based Pearl Studio. It is about a Chinese girl named Yi, who helps Everest, a yeti, find his way back to his home in the mountains. In one of the movie scenes, Yi stands next to a map of China depicting China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, which stretches hundreds of miles from China’s southern Hainan island.
The “nine-dash line” is what China uses to claim that it has a historical rights to the majority of this body of water, including all the rights to the rocks, reefs, and natural resources within that line. However, a number of neighboring countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have long disputed such claims. These countries expressed that they have historical documents to back up their rights to the region. Vietnam also engaged in several gory battles in the 1970s and ’80s with China over two reefs in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea Fight Has Economic Implications
The disputes between China and its neighboring Asian countries are not simply about who has the rightful claim historically, but is predominantly about economic rights. It is estimated that the South China Sea region is rich with deposits of oil, gas, and minerals. It is also notably one of the busiest trading routes.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates that about $3.4 trillion worth of global trade, as well as a third of global shipping, passes through this area. Not to mention, “over 64 percent of China’s maritime trade transited the waterway in 2016, while nearly 42 of Japan’s maritime trades passed through the South China Sea in the same year.”
Given how much the Chinese economy relies on the trade through the South China Sea, China retains a persistent anxiousness when it feels that a “certain major power” (the United States) may pose a potential threat to China’s economy and national security if it somehow gains control of the maritime trading route. When Xi Jinping came into power, it was reported, “On the South China Sea issue, [Xi] personally made decisions on building islands and consolidating the reefs, and setting up the city of Sansha. [These decisions] fundamentally changed the strategic situation of the South China Sea.”
China expressed its interest in sharing the resources and economic development in the South China Sea with neighboring nations. In practice, however, it treats the region as its own pond and has never hesitated to use its military to enforce this supposed ownership.
In 2012, the Chinese coast guard pushed out Filipino fishermen from fishing around Scarborough Shoal, a reef that is less than 125 miles from the Philippines’ mainland. In the same year, the Chinese navy banished two Vietnamese exploration operations, which led to massive anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam.
China Continues Island-Building
Without consulting any other Asian countries that have made concurrent claims to ownership in the same region, China began transforming reefs into man-made islands in 2013. The United States estimates China’s island-building activities have added more than 3,200 acres of land under its claimed ownership.
In 2013, the Philippines challenged China’s claim in the South China Sea at a United Nations tribunal. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within its ‘nine-dash line’ — an area encompassing the vast majority of the South China Sea.”
The court ruled China’s island build-up was not only unlawful, but a blatant violation of the Philippines’ economic rights, and that it “had caused severe environmental harm to reefs in the chain.” Beijing was infuriated with the ruling and chose to simply ignore it and press ahead with more island constructions.
Prior to the ruling, Beijing had always insisted the island-building was for peaceful practices such as fishing and energy exploration. After the ruling, China dropped the pretense of “non-militarization” in the South China Sea. In 2017, CSIS reported that satellite images showed China had built new military facilities on its man-made islands in the South China Sea, including missile shelters, radars, and various communications facilities. Several of the missile shelters are able to house long-range, surface-to-air missiles. Chinese militarization of the South China Sea raised considerable concern that the freedom of movement and economic activities of other countries in the region would be restricted.
When Rodrigo Duterte became the Philippines’ president soon after the ruling, he admitted that the Philippines, as a small country, had little to no chance of enforcing the Hague ruling. When reporters pressed him about his unwillingness to stand up to China on this issue, Duterte threw his hands up and asked, “Have you heard of any sane solution short of going to war with China saying, ‘We will not budge’?”
The Philippines may not want to challenge China militarily, but it has never recognized the legitimacy of China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea. In fact, no other countries except China use a map with the “nine-dash line.” Such a map and the South China Sea dispute are especially sensitive topics in Southeast Asia.
China Pushes the Limits, but Other Countries Push Back
Authorities in Vietnam and Malaysia wanted DreamWorks to cut the map scene from “Abominable,” but the company promptly refused. Therefore, both countries decided to boycott the movie. Philippine authorities said they were considering a similar move. These small countries do not have China’s economic and military power, but they are determined to take a stand for their territorial claims.
The United States is the only country in the world that can and has been challenging China’s claim in the South China Sea by conducting “freedom of navigation” operations. The United States carried out four such operations in 2017, five in 2018, and three in 2019 so far.
The United States has no territorial claims in the region, nor does the United States publicly take sides with any country’s territorial claims. These U.S. operations serve as a strategic interest to ensure free movement in the region and to ensure that all countries, including the United States, have the right to access the abundant natural resources in international waters.
China has responded to these U.S. operations in a very defiant and aggressive manner. In September 2018, when the USS Decatur sailed close to the Spratly Islands, China sent a destroyer to demand the U.S. ship either change course or “suffer consequences.” The two ships were reportedly “as close as 41 metres (45 yards) from each other, prompting calls that rules for navy encounters should be amended as the risk of confrontation between the two militaries was rising.” It should concern all of us that if China keeps pushing the limits of its aggressive tactics, a military confrontation may become unavoidable.
Corporate America Is Complying with Chinese Propaganda
Military confrontation is not the only thing we should be worried about. Beijing has been able to rely heavily on corporate America to spread its propaganda in a seemingly harmless but much more effective way. Earlier this month, ESPN, a subsidiary of Disney, was also criticized for showing a map of China with the “nine-dash line” on Oct. 9.
American companies such as ESPN and DreamWorks are not only too cowardly to speak up and advocate for freedom, but they are also too eager and swift to spread falsehood. Sports and movies are both powerful means to influence public opinions and distribute soft power. By including a map that is only sanctioned and recognized by Chinese authorities, but was rejected by a majority of the international community, these American companies are making themselves Beijing’s pawns.
These companies’ talent and potential, their vast distribution channels, and their marketing powers are now tools to legitimize an illegitimate claim. If profit is the only thing executives in these companies care about, if pleasing China is the only thing they care about, we, as American consumers, should boycott these companies and their products too.