Of all the things that could inflame tensions in a region that could one day be a theater of war between superpowers, the movie “Barbie” was not an obvious catalyst. Yet here we are.
Authorities in Vietnam this week banned Greta Gerwig’s upcoming film over a map in “Barbie” that they say shows a Chinese map of territory in the South China Sea where the two neighbors have competing claims.
The Philippines, another Southeast Asian country that disputes China’s territorial claims in the sea, is now deciding whether to ban the star-studded film as well. And Vietnam said Thursday it was investigating a map of the South China Sea on the website of a company promoting Blackpink, a K-pop band scheduled to perform in Hanoi this month.
Taking such stands against seemingly innocuous cultural exports may appear to some as an overreaction. But Vietnam’s responses make more sense if viewed within historical and political contexts. Here is an introduction.
What’s Vietnam’s beef with ‘Barbie’?
The head of the Vietnam Cinema Department, an agency in the one-party state, said Monday that the Warner Bros. film will not be released domestically because of a scene that includes the so-called nine-dash line — a map that appears. on official Chinese documents and surrounds most of the South China Sea.
The official, Vi Kien Thanh, did not say which scene Vietnam did not like. Several commentators was amazed if he meant the one showing Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, standing in front of a crudely drawn world map. Some have also noticed that the nine-dash line in that scene seems to lie very far from Asia.
If that is, indeed, the offending map, “I really can’t see what the fuss is about,” said Bill Hayton, the author of books on Vietnam and the South China Sea.
“The map in the film seems to bear no relation to a real map of the world,” added Mr Hayton. “This looks like Vietnam’s censors trying to prove their patriotism and usefulness to the regime.”
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Warner Bros. released a statement saying, “The map in Barbie Land is a child’s pencil drawing. The doodles depict Barbie’s apparent journey from Barbie Land to the ‘real world’. It was not intended to make any kind of statement.”
Why is the South China Sea important to Vietnam?
Vietnam and China are neighbors with an extraordinarily complex relationship. On the one hand, both are ruled by the Communist Party, making them ideological allies. They are also busy business partners who share an 800-mile border.
Yet China has occupied Vietnam for a millennium and invaded it as recently as 1979. And under Xi Jinping, China’s powerful leader, Beijing has built military outposts on contested islands in the South China Sea. It also rejected the landmark ruling of an international court in 2016 that sided with the Philippines, saying that China’s sweeping claim to sovereignty over the sea has no legal basis.
The South China Sea, in particular, is so sensitive that Vietnam and China came perilously close to actual conflict there in 2014, after a Chinese company parked an oil rig in disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast.
All this contributes to fear among many Vietnamese that China could one day start a war in the body of water Vietnam calls the “East Sea”. Those concerns have helped shape Vietnam’s recent efforts to counterbalance its relationship with China by building stronger ties with the United States and other countries.
This “Barbie” ban seems to fit a pattern.
Vietnamese censors banned or changed several other films that showed disputed areas such as being under the control of Beijing. The list includes “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), “Abominable” (2019) and “Uncharted” (2022), among others.
Why are Blackpink and the Philippines involved?
The Philippines is considering banning “Barbie” ahead of its scheduled release there on July 19, and authorities say this week that the film is being reviewed. philippine senator, Francis N. Tolentino, said that scrutiny it would dishonor Philippine sovereignty.
Separately, a Vietnamese official said this week that the country’s Ministry of Culture is trying to verify whether iMe, a Beijing-based Blackpink concert promoter, supports the nine-dash line. The advertiser also apologized for displaying a map of the nine-dash line on its website, the Vietnamese news media reported
The promoter’s Chinese website was unavailable on Friday. Its Korean branch, along with Blackpink’s production company, YG Entertainment, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
As of Friday, K-pop group Blackpink was still scheduled to perform two shows at the national stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, at the end of July.
What is the view in China and Vietnam?
The “Barbie” ban has been widely discussed online in China this week, after the Foreign Ministry in Beijing criticized Vietnam on Tuesday for linking the South China Sea to “normal cultural exchange”. Many Chinese social media users scorned the spat, saying Hollywood would always choose China over Vietnam.
By contrast, some prominent Vietnamese observers said in interviews this week that their government’s “Barbie” ban is consistent with earlier efforts to protect Vietnamese sovereignty in the sea, and partly reflects the Communist Party’s sensitivity to domestic criticism of its Chinese politics
The “Barbie” ban was also successful, they added, because it got the international news media talking again about Vietnam’s territorial grievances.
Chau Doan contributed reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam. He You contributed research from Shanghai.