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.

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