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  • Writer's pictureElijah Granet

Vietnam censors Barbie over international law dispute

Vietnam has banned Barbie over allegations it includes pro-China propaganda.

Vietnamese authorities have announced that they will not allow the soon-to-be-released film Barbie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, to be shown in the country.

The reason, according to Vietnamese press reports, appears to be that a scene in the film depicts the controversial ‘nine-dash line’, which reflects China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

The nine-dash line reflects China’s claims to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, which are disputed by all its neighbours, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.

Each of these countries cites its own supposedly historical evidence to show that they occupied the islands in the past and thus have a historical claim to them.

China has attempted to solidify its nine-dash line claims, named after the nine lines used on the map to draw its borders, not only through propaganda and other forms of soft power, but also by building and militarising artificial islands in the South China Sea. This is a major source of regional tension, and has driven both the Philippines and Vietnam, as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to deepen their military ties with the United States.

The claims in the sea touch on international maritime law. First, China’s artificial islands, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), do not extend or alter the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) China claims. If the law were otherwise, a State could build its way into conquering the sea!

Instead, under UNCLOS, each country has an exclusive economic zone, an area where the country can control the exploitation of its resources, extending 200 nautical miles from the end of the country’s territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles out from the low tide mark on the coast.

This EEZ is technically within international waters, as it is outside of the country’s territorial waters, but subject is to rules by the coastal State with the claim to it.

When many countries have overlapping territorial waters, Article 15 of UNCLOS provides for delineation at the midpoint between the countries. EEZs, however, require agreement between the two states, according to Articles 74 and 84.

As China was insistent on its full nine dash line claims rather than cooperatively negotiating, in 2016, the Philippines sought arbitration over the territorial disputes, under procedure laid out in UNCLOS.

The arbitration was held at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague, a sister institution to the International Court of Justice. China objected to the arbitration and refused to participate in it at all.

Nevertheless, the proceedings continued based on the Philippines’ submissions, and the PCA issued a binding ruling rejecting China’s nine-dash line claims. However, China has rejected the ruling and essentially announced it will ignore it. Vietnam, which supported the Philippines’ claim in the PCA, cites it as evidence that it, not China, has the rightful claim to the Paracel islands.

All this means that Barbie has jumped into a tricky geopolitical mess. However, as the film has been approved for release in China, its apparent endorsement of Chinese nationalism may well help it at the box office.

And, of course, the Chinese box office is far larger than the Vietnamese one, making it much more lucrative to film companies. Thus, geopolitical tension may make for higher box office returns.

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