The upcoming Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling has been banned from domestic distribution in Vietnam, the country’s state media reported Monday, because the film includes a scene featuring a map showing China’s unilaterally claimed territory in the South China Sea.
The so-called “nine-dash line” is used in Chinese maps to depict a huge U-shaped area in the sea—among the most economically and geostrategically important bodies of water in the world—which it claims as its own in contravention of international law. China has continued to uphold its historic rights claim on the area, which partly falls in what Vietnam considers its own coastal shelf, despite an international arbitration ruling by a court in The Hague in 2016 finding that China has “no legal basis” to its rights claim on the vast resources in the area.
“We do not grant license for the American movie ‘Barbie’ to release in Vietnam because it contains the offending image of the nine-dash line,” Vietnam’s state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper reported, citing Vi Kien Thanh, the head of a government body in charge of licensing and censoring foreign films.
The Greta Gerwig-directed comedy, which is set to release on July 21, is just the latest movie to run afoul of Vietnamese censors for showing the nine-dash line. The 2019 DreamWorks Animation film Abominable was banned for the same reason, as was the 2022 film adaptation of the Uncharted video game series. Netflix pulled the Pine Gap spy drama from Vietnam in 2021 over two episodes showing maps which Hanoi officials said were a “misrepresentation of Vietnam’s sovereignty” and had “angered and hurt the feelings of the entire people of Vietnam.”
After the Second World War, China’s then Nationalist government produced a “Location Map of South Sea Islands” which originally featured 11 dashes demarcating what it claimed as its own territory within the region based on centuries-old naval explorations. Later, in the 1950s, Chairman Mao gave up the claim to the Gulf of Tonkin to Vietnam, removing two of the dashes, though retaining most of its ancient sovereignty claim over the sea.
Today, the South China Sea is one of the most crucial waterways on the planet owing to its rich natural resources of oil and gas, abundant fisheries, and significance as a vital trading route to the markets of Southeast Asia. In 2009, China sparked a major international dispute by submitting a map including the nine-dash line to the U.N. as part of a dispute with Vietnam.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a treaty adopted by 168 countries—including China—coastal nations are granted a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where they retain rights over all natural resources. In 2013, the Philippines started arbitration proceedings against China arguing that its nine-dash line violated UNCLOS, with the tribunal three years later ruling in the Philippines’ favor and concluding that China’s historic rights claim was unlawful.
China has rejected the ruling and its coast guard vessels continue to patrol in the outer reaches of its nine-dash line some 700 nautical miles from the Chinese coastline. Competing claims in the South China Sea still remain among other countries including Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
It’s not yet clear how the offending nine-dash line map made its way into the Barbie movie.