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Barbie Gets A Lesson In Geopolitics

Margot Robbie playing Barbie in front of a world map
Image CreditWGN News/Youtube

Hollywood can no longer claim obliviousness or pretend to be naive about its role in spreading communist China’s propaganda.

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The highly anticipated summer blockbuster “Barbie” hasn’t hit theaters yet (official release day is July 21), but the plastic doll is already embroiled in a real-life geopolitical controversy. Vietnam banned the film this week over a scene displaying a map of the South China Sea with the controversial “nine-dash line.” Authorities in the Philippines are also deliberating whether they should prohibit the film from showing in their country.

Social media users couldn’t stop mocking Barbie’s geopolitical troubles. There were many images of Barbie getting ready to go to war by dressing up in a sexy military outfit, sitting in a pink boat, and landing a pink warplane. But anyone who thought Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries were too petty over a map has missed the historical context and ongoing geopolitical contentions related to the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is one of the most important international waterways for trade and energy. It is also rich in natural resources such as fisheries, minerals, oil, and gas. Since 1947, China has used the nine-dash line to justify its maritime claim to any land or features contained within the line, including all the rights to the rocks, reefs, and natural resources. Since the nine-dash line encircles about 90 percent of the South China Sea, China has practically asserted this international water as its domestic pond with the stroke of a pen.

China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have long discredited China’s “nine-dash line” map for ignoring their competing historical claims and violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to UNCLOS, a nation has sovereignty over waters extending 12 nautical miles from its land and exclusive control over economic activities in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But China’s nine-dash line runs as far as 1,200 miles from mainland China to within only 100 miles of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam coasts, a clear infringement of these nations’ sovereignty and economic interests. 

Vietnam fought several bloody battles against China in the South China Sea in 1974 and 1988. Nearly two decades later, Malaysia and Vietnam filed a joint submission to the UN Commission in 2009, challenging China’s bogus maritime claims. After China began to build and militarize artificial islands in the disputed water, the Philippines filed an arbitration case under the UNCLOS in 2013. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in 2016 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 also ruled that China’s island build-up was unlawful and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ economic rights. It “had caused severe environmental harm to reefs in the chain.” But China ignored the ruling and continued to press ahead with its aggression in the South China Sea in defiance. 

To the great annoyance and alarm of China’s neighbors and other Indo-Pacific nations, China has continued to use the nine-dash line as a justification to conduct fishing and energy exploration in neighboring countries’ EEZs, while Chinese coast guards intimidated and disrupted neighboring nations from conducting similar commercial activities in their own sovereign waters. The Chinese military claims self-defense whenever it tries aggressive maneuvers to stop the U.S. and its allies from conducting “freedom of navigation” through international waters in the South China Sea.

Presently, except for China, no country recognizes the legitimacy of the nine-dash line or uses any map with the nine-dash line. 

Hollywood cannot claim obliviousness to all the geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea. Nor can it pretend to be naive about its role in spreading communist China’s propaganda because Vietnam and other nations have boycotted several Hollywood movies and TV series in recent years due to scenes including the “nine-dash line” map. 

Vietnam authorities only allowed screenings of the 2018 rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” after the scene featuring a designer bag with a map of the nine-dash line was cut from the film. In 2019, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam banned DreamWorks’ animation “Abominable” because of a scene featuring a map with a nine-dash line.

Time Magazine reported, “In 2021, officials in the Philippines ordered Netflix to take down select episodes of the Australian spy drama ‘Pine Gap’ due to scenes containing the nine-dash line, while Vietnam demanded the entire series be removed from the streamer.” Last year, the Philippines and Vietnam pulled the screenings of Sony’s “Uncharted” in their countries due to the same issue. 

Hollywood has a long history of capitulating to the Chinese government in exchange for profits and market shares. By repeatedly including a map with the nine-dash line in its films and TV shows, Hollywood has been complicit in legitimizing China’s illegitimate maritime claim and normalizing China’s aggression for a worldwide audience. For small nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam that are frequently subject to China’s economic coercion and military intimidation, imposing over-the-top measures such as banning films and TV shows is one of the few actions they could take in order to draw the international community’s attention to China’s “might makes right” geopolitical expansion.

Hollywood’s market share in China dropped from 30.7 percent in 2018 to 13.6 percent in 2022, mainly due to Xi Jinping’s push to prioritize domestic productions and cut back on foreign movie imports. Furthermore, China is no longer the world’s largest movie market. To grow profits and market shares, Hollywood must look elsewhere. Vietnam’s ban on “Barbie” may be the final straw for Hollywood to realize that carrying water for Beijing while alienating audiences in other growing markets isn’t worth it.


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