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Regional Agitation, Life is Your Creation: Vietnam’s Barbie Ban Explained

The upcoming Barbie movie is anticipated to take the box office by storm. Something as silly and innocent as a movie about dolls without reproductive organs shouldn’t offend anyone, but Vietnam is concerned that, in Barbieland, the ongoing South China Sea disputes appear to have been resolved in favour of China.

The Vietnamese government made waves when it banned the screening of Barbie due to its depictions of maps that contain the nine-dash line – China’s infamous claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, which overlaps with Vietnam’s and other East and Southeast Asia states’ claims to exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and territory.

The idea the Barbie movie could contain hidden Chinese propaganda sparked global interest. Netizens quickly flocked to find the map in question and investigate the movie makers’ intentions. The results have been rather disappointing. As the movie has yet to premiere, only one image of a cartoon world map from the trailer came under suspicion, but the line in question was neither in the south nor nine-dash. Recently, Warner Bros clarified that the line represents Barbie’s journey in the real world. Vietnam’s National Council for Film Appraisal and Classification pushed back, asserting that the line appears multiple times in the movie and accusing its vague depiction as “an intricate violation.”

It will not be until 21 July, when the movie is officially released in theatres, that people may decide for themselves whether Barbie is taking sides in the dispute and disregarding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For now, rather than questioning whether Barbie movie is making a political statement about sovereignty and rights to resources in the South China Sea, it is perhaps more interesting for readers of international affairs to ask: why is the Vietnamese government taking it this far?

As country specialist Carlyle Thayer has somewhat rightly pointed out, the ban was an overreaction, and perhaps no one would have even realised that the abstract nine-dash line was there if the Vietnamese had not pointed it out. Moreover, Thayer saw the move as distracting and counterproductive, as discourse about Barbie drew attention away from what has been happening on the ground (sea). Here, Thayer was referring to the fact that from May to June, Chinese surveillance ship Xiang Yang Hong 10 (XHY-10), accompanied by coast guard and fishing ships, frequented Vietnam’s EEZ to survey for resources in some of Vietnam’s traditional oil and gas fields. At one point, the XHY-10 and its escorts were seen to have crossed over to Vietnam’s continental shelf, standing 47 nautical miles from Vietnam’s baseline. This is the closest to Vietnam’s coast that Chinese vessels have ever operated. Vietnam’s East Sea Institute interprets the action as a Chinese attempt to increase its presence and constitute a “new normal,” as well as to “send an intimidating message” to Vietnam, which at the time was conducting a joint exercise with India, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, Barbie was unavailable to comment on this escalating tension.

So, by focusing on Western fictional media instead of Chinese real-life aggression, is the Barbie ban distracting and counter-productive? I argue not. While banning the film may be an overreaction that makes the Vietnamese government appear overly sensitive in the eye of international public, the government’s somewhat theatrical reaction to the season’s most anticipated piece of pop culture is drawing more attention to the dispute (and to Warner Bros’ benefit, the movie itself). Ho Chi Minh City-based journalist Michael Tatarski estimated that Vietnam’s Barbie ban was the most-covered Vietnam story in international media since the 2019 Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. Outlets like the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, and numerous others have reported on the ban. While not all reports went the extra step to contextualise the ban with the recent Chinese aggressions, these articles have all reminded readers of the illegal nature of China’s nine-dash line claim and faulty belief in the historical rights that the line represents, which is ultimately what serves as the basis for China’s current violations in the South China Sea.

In recent years, the Vietnamese government has found it increasingly difficult to protest China’s activities in the disputed sea effectively and safely. This can be attributed to both internal and external risks of vocalised protest. Internally, anti-Chinese sentiment has grown to the point where it is doing more harm than good for the government. In the early 2010s, the government of Vietnam toyed with the idea of evoking public anger to bolster nationalist protest against Chinese violations at sea. This was thought to give Vietnam more leverage in negotiations with Beijing by creating more buzz around the dispute. But, as it turns out, ensuring that people express their anger within an acceptable range that is productive for the government is not an easy task.

Series of anti-China protests and violent riots in the summer of 2014 and 2018 have demonstrated how anger at China could be redirected to target the home government, destabilising the domestic political environment and weakening the regime’s control. As a result, Vietnamese officials might feel the need to avoid being too critical of China, as it could risk aggravating the public anger. The more obvious reason to think twice before protesting harshly against Chinese actions is the fear of antagonising China, which not only finds Vietnam’s complaints ignorable but also possesses various tools, such as economic sanctions, to punish Vietnam should it dare to further internationalise the dispute.

In this context, banning Barbie is an indirect yet effective and attention-grabbing way of pushing back against Chinese grey-zone activities both at sea and in the everyday space in which Chinese irredentist narratives are becoming more invasive. While the verdict is still out on Barbie, the nine-dash line map had indeed found its way into many other pieces of Chinese and Western media. Banning a movie is such a low stake that it is neither likely to upset Beijing nor inspire people to take to the street.

Yet, the ban revitalises the discourse on China’s greed and aggression in the South China Sea, which has become oversaturated over the years. Its effects are being felt beyond Vietnam’s box offices. After news of the ban broke out, Barbie was subjected to an additional two round of rigorous reviews by legal maritime experts in the Philippines. Although Manila ultimately chose to allow the film, in their released statement, the Office of the President of the Philippines reiterated that they will not hesitate to sanction and/or ban films that exhibit the nine-dash line. The Australian Ambassador to Vietnam tweeted that, despite Australia’s support of Barbie’s lead actor and Australian national treasure Margot Robbie, Australia rejects the nine-dash line and stands by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling.

It is difficult to know exactly whether the ban was truly a coordinated attempt across ministries in Vietnam to send a message to China. Ultimately, it is an effort to avoid falling into the trap of Chinese lawfare. Vietnam is concerned that its endorsement of materials containing images of the nine-dash line could be interpreted as endorsement of the line itself. Since 2016, Vietnam has refused to stamp Chinese passports depicting the line. But it is also not farfetched to understand the ban as a political statement of protest, considering it would have been easier to censor or cut the disputed scene from the movie instead of asking domestic distributors to endure economic loss and withdraw the movie entirely. Perhaps it is unfair for Barbie as she’s done nothing wrong, but perhaps it was never about her anyway.

Minh Phuong Vu is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University (ANU). Her research interests include territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnamese foreign policy, and China’s influence in Southeast Asia. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.