Author Archive

Barbie Gets Banned: A Geopolitical Adventure

June 6, 2024
Sarah Jacobson

The release of the Barbie movie on 21 July 2023 produced an instant box-office hit and simultaneously reignited an international conflict over territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a scene taking place in the fictional world of BarbieLand, the “Real World Map” is shown in the background as a cartoonish reimagination of the world.

Real World Map” included in the film Barbie shown in the background.

Although in the film, the map is simply a background prop, it includes eight small dashes off the southeastern coast of “Asia”, which some believe reference China’s controversial nine-dash line claim. China has made vast territorial claims to the maritime area of the South China Sea, which overlaps with maritime claims of numerous other countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. These claims are typically represented on China’s maps utilizing nine dashes, encompassing the waters and islands of the South China Sea. While Warner Bros has publicly stated the inclusion of the dashes is not political and does not represent anything more than a childish drawing, not every country agrees. 

Image of “Asia” and the dashes that are believed to represent China’s nine-dash line.
Map of the South China Sea illustrating China’s maritime sovereignty claims.

Once the news broke, several countries who have publicly rejected China’s claims announced they would either be banning screenings of Barbie or censoring the image of the map. Vietnam is one country that banned the film entirely due to the inclusion of the “offending image” of China’s territorial claims. The Philippines also loudly protested the inclusion of the map, initially stating they would censor the image in any screenings of the film. Following several review sessions and consultations, they determined the map did not truly portray China’s territorial claims and allowed the film to be screened. 

Barbie was not the first film to have been censored due to the inclusion of the “nine-dash line” in a project. The Disney films Abominable and Uncharted were banned in Vietnam upon their release and an Australian spy drama, Pine Gap, was also removed from Netflix’s streaming services for including a map that references China’s claims. Movies and television are not the only ones to have sparked controversy, with the K-pop group Blackpink having to apologize to Vietnam for the inclusion of a map on their tour website which referenced the nine-dashed line.

World Map from Uncharted

Due to its controversial nature, one might wonder why the map is included at all as it might affect a film’s success at the international level. In truth, Disney has a long history of censoring their films and shows in order to appease the Communist Party of China (CCP). The relationship between the Mouse and China began in 1996, when Disney released Kundun, a film illustrating the oppression of Tibetan people by the Chinese government. As a result, all Disney films were blocked by the Chinese film market until the then Disney CEO apologized for the movie and called it an insult to their friends. With the release of Mulan (1998), Disney once again made several compromises for it to be screened in China. This included purchasing foreign distribution rights for two Chinese films, hiring a Chinese performance group for the European release of Mulan and the construction of a Disney Park in China, which is open now in Shanghai. Other Disney films have been carefully screened or censored before being released in China, such as Doctor Strange, which received public backlash for replacing a Tibetan character with a white British actress. One screenwriter of the film stated the recasting was explicitly due to fear of repercussions from the CCP for portraying a Tibetan character, illustrating the hold that the Chinese film market has on Disney. 

The History

The mere inclusion of China’s nine-dash line on any map is considered highly controversial by several East Asian countries. Those unaware of the region’s history may find the public outcry unnecessary, however the issue of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea has been a centuries-long conflict between numerous nations. 

Over 200 islands, atolls, cays and reefs are scattered throughout the South China Sea, many of which have multiple claimants, with some areas of dispute being more contentious than others. The longstanding historical conflict began in 1907 over Pratas Island, a coral reef lying midway between modern-day Taiwan and Hong Kong in the northern stretches of the South China Sea.

Japanese farmers had established a presence on Pratas Island harvesting guano and poaching birds for meat and luxury feathers. China’s interest was piqued in the region, and they claimed sovereignty over Pratas, despite the Japanese presence. With the discovery of additional island groups further south, China would go on to claim new features, such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands. China maintained control of the region until the 1930’s, when Japan and France began to occupy several islands in the Spratlys. Over a decade later, in the aftermath of WWII, Japan surrendered all control to the United States and renounced all claims to Korea, Taiwan and the Spratly Islands. These events would lead China to reassert their claims to the islands throughout the South China Sea and publish their first map including the “nine-dash line” in 1948. 

Interest in the South China Sea was reignited in the late 1960’s with the discovery of large amounts of hydrocarbon resources within its waters. Shortly after this discovery, China reasserted their claim to the islands while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan discussed potential joint energy ventures in the South China Sea. Over the next several decades, various nations would make claims to the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, Johnson Reef and other notable islands and features.

Violent clashes would continue to break out over opposing sovereignty claims and maritime resources until 2002, when China and ten Southeast Asian nations signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Taking six years of negotiations to finalize, the declaration was meant to ease tensions in the region and provide guidelines on methods for conflict resolution. This proved to be moderately successful in limiting conflict and led to a joint energy development agreement between China and Japan. The States initially agreed on jointly exploring four oil fields, however in 2009, China began development without Japan and little progress on the negotiations has been made since.

Eventually, Malaysia and Vietnam jointly filed a submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. This was done in order to extend their existing continental shelf claims beyond the 200 nautical mile standard. Filing this claim renewed frictions in the region, specifically with China, which viewed the action as an infringement on their territorial claims. In response, China published the modern iteration of their “nine-dash line” claim.  Several more violent conflicts broke out until 2013 when the Philippines would initiate an international arbitration case against China. The primary reasons for the case were China’s controversial sovereignty claims and their continued blocking of foreign vessels in the waters of the South China Sea. China rejected the proceedings and refused to take part in the case, instead continuing their land reclamation activities on claimed reefs and islands. 

China maintains de facto control over a feature called Fiery Cross Reef. The first image is the minimal reclamation that had occrred in 2012, the second is China’s completed efforts in 2020.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a ruling in favor of the Philippines, stating that China’s position that foreign militaries cannot pass through or conduct intelligence-gathering activities within its claimed territory in the South China Sea was in contradiction of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which both China and the Philippines are signatories of. UNCLOS grants claimant countries freedom of navigation, meaning they do not have to notify other claimants of military activities even if it is within a foreign nation’s EEZ. Despite China agreeing to the treaty, they have refused to accept the court’s authority in this matter. The specifics of their nine-dash line claim are not in conformity with UNCLOS, and many countries have disputed EEZ claims in the South China Sea.

While the numerous opposing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea have yet to be resolved, the region as a whole has become more peaceful since the 2016 ruling. However, over the last year, the number of encounters between the Philippines and China has increased as Philippine fishing activity has increased within their EEZ. China considers these activities an intrusion into their waters and has begun to utilize water cannons and other collision tactics to repel foreign vessels. Tensions are particularly high around Second Thomas Shoal, a feature occupied by the Philippines, after two separate ships returned from resupply missions damaged and with crew injured by water cannons from Chinese vessels. In response, the Philippines have begun to conduct joint patrols with their allies, Japan and Australia. A Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines is also in place, which makes it clear that the US would protect its allies if their armed forces were under attack anywhere in the South China Sea.  

Considering the wide reach and influence movies and media have on a global scale, it is important that audiences explore why those responsible for a film’s production and distribution would include certain maps or images, especially those which could ignite controversy over territorial claims. It may seem inconsequential to most viewers, however it can often be seen as an intentional attack on a State’s sovereignty claims and reignite or add pressure to an already tense and complex international issue.

Want to learn more about sovereignty claims in the South China Sea? Read our blog on Understanding the South China Sea.

Judgment Bay   

May 5, 2022
Sarah Jacobson

The Maritime Dispute between El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras in the Gulf of Fonseca  


The Gulf of Fonseca is a sheltered inlet whose coast and waters are shared by El Salvador to the north, Honduras to the east, and Nicaragua to the south. The entrance to the Gulf measures 19.5 nautical miles (36 kilometers) and is marked in the north by Cape Amapala in El Salvador and to the south by Cape Cosigüina in Nicaragua. Several rivers run into and feed the Gulf, with mangrove swamps blanketing the coastline, and numerous islands dotted throughout. The resource rich waters and unique marine environments are part of the Pacific Central American Coastal Large Marine Ecosystem, and the Gulf is home to crucial shrimp nurseries, which are a main export of the region.

It is often believed that the Gulf of Fonseca was a sparsely inhabited region prior to Spanish “discovery” in 1522, however, ethnohistorical research proves that numerous ethnic groups speaking various languages existed in villages among the islands and coasts along the Gulf. Conchagua Vieja was one such village, home to the Lenca people, an indigenous ethnic group native to the region. Archaeologists propose the prior existence of an extensive travel and trade network along the coasts and complex river systems of Central America, with the Gulf of Fonseca being one of many trade centers allowing coastal and inland populations to exchange goods.

A description of the Gulf of Amapall, 1685. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Conflict within the Gulf began after Spanish conquest between the governorships of Guatemala and Honduras, not over the land, but due to the value that could be acquired through enslaving the native population. Over 90% of the indigenous population was eradicated or enslaved within approximately 30 years of colonization. Just 150 years after the initial accounts of the region, records indicate little to no existence of indigenous settlements in the area, leading to the false belief that the region had been previously sparsely populated (Chapters 3 & 4 of Archaeology of the Colonial Period Gulf of Fonseca, Eastern El Salvador). 

A view of the Gulf of Fonseca from Isla Conchagüita in 1973, from the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program.

The Gulf was not a source of conflict again until El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua gained independence, as Spain failed to delimit the maritime boundaries within the Gulf during the colonial period. The conflicts that exist today, centuries later, are due to the extensive resources and economic opportunity provided by the Gulf through fishing, trade routes and access to the Pacific Ocean.

[So Many] Court Judgments 

Issues of sovereignty and access to resources in the Gulf of Fonseca arose quickly following Honduras’, El Salvador’s and Nicaragua’s independence from Spain in 1839. Upon independence, the respective boundaries of the three nations reflected the former administrative boundaries of the Spanish colonies, utilizing the principle of uti possidetis iuris – a concept in international law that preserves the existing boundaries of former colonies. This was first applied to former Central American colonies rising into statehood and again for African countries seeking independence a century later. As colonial boundaries, at best, ignored historic delimitations between indigenous groups and, at worst, purposefully undermined them, the use of uti possidetis iuris has led to countless conflicts in Central, South America and Africa as newly independent states attempted to establish governments and functioning economies. The Gulf of Fonseca is home to one of these post-colonial territorial conflicts due to its rich resources and geopolitical value.

The first attempt at resolving boundary issues in the region began in 1888, when Honduras and Nicaragua signed a treaty partially delimiting the land frontier. However, much of the land boundary remained unsettled, and so a request was made to the King of Spain to arbitrate the remaining disputed border. In 1906, an award on the boundary questions was issued. Nicaragua contested the award and more than fifty years later, brought the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) who delivered its Judgment on 18 November 1960. The ICJ found that the 1906 boundary, based on the Spanish colonial borders, was binding, and Nicaragua was obliged to accept and enforce it. The two countries returned to the ICJ in 2007 which determined the starting point of their Caribbean Sea maritime boundary and sovereignty of several islands. A Caribbean territorial sea boundary was not established, and the Court urged both States to negotiate and further define the boundary bilaterally. 

The boundary between El Salvador and Honduras to the north was first established in a 1980 General Peace Treaty which provided for a partial delimitation. After failing to complete the delimitation for the remainder of the border within 5 years of the treaty, El Salvador and Honduras agreed to take their case to the ICJ in 1986, with Nicaragua intervening to defend its rights in the Gulf of Fonseca. 

A Judgment was handed down on 11 September 1992, which delimited the remaining undefined El Salvador–Honduras land frontier and determined the legal ownership of islands and maritime spaces in and outside the waters of Fonseca. The ICJ ruled that the Gulf is an historic bay with shared internal waters, since all three littoral states gained independence from the same sovereign nation, Spain. Additionally, as Spain failed to delimit the maritime boundaries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua within the Gulf, the Court classified it as a condominium, and determined that the three Parties shall maintain a tripartite presence in the waters while pending an official delimitation (HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT: A CONDOMINIUM IN THE GULF OF FONSECA – Chapters 1 & 2). Beyond the Gulf, the Court granted Honduras access to the Pacific Ocean, protecting their historic fishing rights and allowing them to benefit from the natural resources. While not specifying any official maritime boundaries, the Court did vaguely grant Honduras a 3 nautical mile wide corridor extending from the closing line of the Gulf of Fonseca. 

Sketch-map No. G-1 Gulf of Fonseca from the 1992 Judgment.

El Salvador was unhappy with the Court’s proposed solution and attempted to have the ICJ revise the 1992 Judgment a decade later, renewing the strained relationship with Nicaragua and Honduras as they both supported the original terms of the Judgment. El Salvador’s request was found inadmissible by the Court based on the presented facts. Despite attempts at reconciliation in the following years, violence in the region continued due to disputes over maritime boundaries, trade routes, fishing zone access, and undercover drug trafficking in the region. 

2021 Agreement between Nicaragua and Honduras

On 28 October 2021, Honduras and Nicaragua signed a treaty partially delimiting their maritime boundaries in the Caribbean Sea and in the waters outside the Gulf of Fonseca. This agreement partially delineates and affirms the boundaries between Nicaragua and Honduras as determined by the various judgments on its boundaries in 1960, 2007, and 1992. 

The majority of the articles in the 2021 Agreement focus on the Gulf of Fonseca, mostly reaffirming and accepting the provision of the 1992 Judgment. The agreement further defines the extent of Honduras’ Pacific Ocean Corridor and provides the coordinates to divide the sovereignty corridors along the Gulf closing line. Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua each have sovereignty over approximately one third of the closing line, extended out to sea along a specified azimuth. While providing a vague indication of what the Pacific Ocean maritime boundary delimitation may be, further negotiations must be done involving El Salvador, who thus far has refused to participate. 

The Future of Fonseca

The 2021 Agreement has not entered into force. While it was ratified by Nicaragua promptly, Honduras hesitated and has yet to approve the treaty. There were concerns that the former Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández agreed to the deal to guarantee his future political asylum in Nicaragua. Hernández has been linked to drug trafficking cases by US Federal Courts, and his younger brother was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 for similar charges. Hernández left office following Honduras’ presidential elections in January 2022 and attempted to gain immunity from prosecution by joining the Central American Parliament (Parlacen). However, in February 2022, the US Supreme Court issued an extradition request and Hernández was transferred to the US, currently awaiting trial. 

El Salvadoran President, Nayib Bukele, who refused to take part in the Gulf of Fonseca negotiations, responded to the agreement with an official document issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fully rejecting the proposal. Bukele has stated that he was apprehensive to attend the negotiations due to the dubious circumstances surrounding the agreement, and the reaction it might receive from the international community if he were to take part in such a deal. 

Additionally, El Salvador and Honduras continue to dispute the sovereignty of Conejo Island, a small island that can be reached by foot during low tide along the coast of Honduras. The island was not officially disputed until El Salvador filed its request to the ICJ for revision a decade after the 1992 Judgment. El Salvador was intending to modify the boundary along the River Goascorán from its present course to a historic riverbed. In doing this, Conejo Island would be within El Salvador’s control, which could further restrict Honduras’ access to the Pacific Ocean through the Gulf of Fonseca. However, with El Salvador’s claim being found inadmissible by the ICJ due to insufficient evidence, the island remains in Honduran waters. Despite this ruling, El Salvador has maintained their claim to Conejo Island in the intervening years.

Since the 2021 Agreement, violence has continued to plague the region, with Honduran fishermen being captured by El Salvadoran troops in attempts to travel across the Gulf for better fishing prospects. It is unclear whether Honduras plans to ratify the Agreement given the current friction between the parties.

The Gulf of Fonseca is a unique geographic feature and home to an interesting trilateral sovereignty question. Despite multiple bilateral agreements and Court Judgments, maritime boundary delimitation in the Gulf and adjacent Pacific Ocean is no closer to being defined than it was at the end of Spanish colonial rule almost two hundred years ago.

Twitter Facebook Linked In YouTube
Subscribe to our newsletter (and receive a free map!) SUBSCRIBE