Barbie, a forthcoming Hollywood fantasy comedy film centered around the iconic doll, is slated for global release this month. However, its promotional trailer has sparked a geopolitical controversy due to a scene featuring a map with dotted lines that purportedly resembles China’s “nine-dash line.” This line marks China’s unilateral territorial claims over a vast area of the South China Sea, which is subject to overlapping claims by countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. The South China Sea holds strategic importance as a vital trade route, abundant in natural resources and fishing grounds.
In response to the controversy surrounding the movie, Vietnamese authorities swiftly banned its screenings on July 3, coinciding with actress Margot Robbie’s attendance at a South Korean press conference to promote the film in Asia. In defense of the movie, Warner Bros. Pictures, the film’s distributor, argued that the map in question is nothing more than a “child-like crayon drawing” and does not accurately depict the “nine-dash line.”
Indeed, the map featured in Barbie displays an eight-dash line and does not include identifiable Southeast Asian nations. This distinction sets it apart from the explicit portrayal of the U-shaped “nine-dash line” in DreamWorks’ 2019 animated film Abominable and Sony Pictures’ 2022 action movie Uncharted, which resulted in the banning of these films by both Vietnamese and Philippine authorities.
What stands out in the case of Barbie is the divergent response among the involved Southeast Asian neighbors. While the Philippines followed Vietnam’s lead in banning the aforementioned Hollywood movies, the Philippine Movie and Television Review and Classification Board opted to allow the film to proceed, asserting that the “cartoonish” map does not feature the “nine-dash line.” The board, however, did request Warner Bros. to blur the controversial line to avoid any possible misinterpretations.
The contrasting decisions reflect the intricate international, regional, and domestic politics at play. Both countries have witnessed heightened anti-China sentiment and mounting pressures to take a stronger stance towards China’s territorial claims. In 2013, the Philippines chose a proactive approach, bringing its territorial dispute with China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The ruling in 2016 favored Manila, although Beijing rejected the judgment and continued constructing and staffing outposts on man-made islands, as well as deploying vessels in the area. On the other hand, Vietnam has refrained from pursuing substantial legal measures against China even though it had contemplated doing so in 2014 and 2019. Therefore, Vietnam’s ban on Barbie can be interpreted as a symbolic gesture, illustrating the government’s commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty and response to the public outrage on social media over China’s attempts to normalize its territorial claims.
The Philippine government’s decision to allow Barbie to proceed not only reflects its confidence in its legal victory but signifies a shift towards a more assertive foreign policy stance. In February, the Philippines and the United States revived the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement during the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has adopted a more U.S.-friendly foreign policy than his predecessors and resolved the domestic obstacles for full implementation of the agreement, initially signed in 2014. The agreement grants the U.S. access to nine military bases in the Philippines that hold significant value for potential military contingencies in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea. For Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Hanoi in April, expressing a desire to upgrade diplomatic ties, yet no substantial progress has been made in strengthening U.S.-Vietnam relations, apart from the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan making an intermediate stop in Danang.
The timing also plays a crucial role in their decisions. Vietnam’s 2019 ban on Abominable occurred during a tense monthslong standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese coast guards near the disputed Vanguard Bank. The release of Barbie trailer coincided with another weeks-long standoff in late May. In contrast, the Philippine approval coincided with the seventh anniversary of an international ruling that invalidated China’s historical claims to the South China Sea. The Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Enrique Manalo, reiterated the historical ruling’s significance, legitimizing Manila’s territorial claims, and emphasizing its effort to “take the path of principle, the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes.” In its official statement, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board firmly warned filmmakers and distributors of the possibility of future sanctions on films that include the “nine-dash line,” stressing that such depictions violate the Philippine Baselines Law and the South China Sea Arbitration Award.
Whether the Barbie map in a Barbie world features an eight-dash or nine-dash line may matter less to Vietnam and the Philippines. Both countries not only satisfied their domestic audiences but also conveyed strong messages to the international community. Vietnam’s actions signal its consistent resolve to protect its territorial integrity, even if not through legal means. The Barbie ban has reportedly become one of the most-covered Vietnam stories in international media in recent years, alongside the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. The Philippines also utilized the film’s release as an opportunity to highlight international rulings that uphold Manila’s legitimate claim to the South China Sea.
What does all of this mean for Warner Bros.? It is often said that any publicity, even negative publicity, is good publicity. Barbie has undoubtedly garnered global attention even before its official release. Nevertheless, it is naive for Warner Bros. to dismiss claims of any geopolitical intentions behind the film and adopt a position of separating politics from business. Hollywood’s eagerness to appeal to China’s market and capital has drawn not only international attention but domestic scrutiny. Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, who leads a select House panel dedicated to countering China’s influence, expressed concern over the Barbie map to highlight the self-censorship of Hollywood. In this complex landscape of global politics, it is essential for corporations to comprehend the potential implications of their seemingly innocuous commercial decisions. This extends beyond technology sectors, like semiconductor chips, that have direct links to national security concerns.
In 2019, DreamWorks declined to comply with the request to remove the scene featuring the “nine-dash line” and accepted the subsequent ban in Southeast Asia. It remains to be seen how Warner Bros. will respond to Manila’s request to blur the line. Once caught in the crossfire, as emphasized by the Eurasia Group’s Top Risks for 2022, corporations find themselves in a predicament where they are “damned” if they take an action and “damned” if they refrain from doing so.