' BARBIE ' swims in murky geopolitical waters. Astonishingly of all the things that could inflame tensions in a region that could someday be a theater of war between superpowers, the movie '' Barbie '' was not an obvious catalyst. YET here we are.

The authorities in Vietnam last week banned the coming Greata Gerwig film over a map in ''Barbie'' that they said shows a Chinese map of territory in South China Sea, where Vietnam and China have competing claims.

The Philippines, another   Southeast Asian country that disputes China's territorial claims in the sea, is deciding whether to ban the star-studded film as well.

And Vietnam said last week that it was investigating a South China Sea map 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 look like an overreaction. But Vietnam's responses make more sense if they are viewed within historical and political contexts.

Vietnam's Complaint :

The head of the Vietnam Cinema Department, an agency for the one-party state, said last week that the Warner Bros, film ''Barbie''would 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 encircles most of the South China Sea.

The official, Vie Kien Thanh, did not say which scene Vietnam hadn't liked. Several commentators wondered whether he meant the one showing Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, standing in front of a crudely drawn world map.

Some also noted that the nine-dash line in that scene appears to lie very far from Asia.

If that is the offending map, '' I really can't see what the fuss is about,'' said Bill Hayton, an author of books on Vietnam and the South China Sea.

'' The map in the film  appears to bear no relation to a real map of the world,'' Mr. Hayton added. '' That looks like Vietnam's censors trying to demonstrate their patriotism and usefulness to the regime.''

Pham Thu Hang, a spokeswoman for Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, said in a statement that ''products and publications that promote the nine-dash line are not permitted'' for use or distribution in the country. She did not say which scene of the film Vietnam objected to.

Warner Bros, said in a statement that the map in the film was a ''childlike crayon drawing ''that'' ''was not intended to make any type of statement.''

The South China Sea

Vietnam and China are neighbors with an extraordinarily complex relationship. On one hand, both are ruled by a Communist Party, making them ideological allies.They are also busy trading partners that share an 800-mile [ 1,300 kilometer ] border.

Yet China occupied Vietnam for a millennium and invaded it as recently as 1979. And under Xi Jinping, China's very powerful leader, Beijing has built military outposts on contested islands in the South China Sea. It has also rejected an international tribunal's 2016 ruling that sided with the Philippines by saying China's expansive claim to sovereignty over the sea had no legal basis.

The South China Sea, in particular, is so sensitive that Vietnam and China came dangerously close to an actual conflict there in 2014, after a Chinese company parked an oil rig in disputed waters off the Vietnam coast.

All of that contributes to a fear among many Vietnamese that China could someday start a war in the body of water, which 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.

A Censorship Pattern

Vietnamese censors have banned or altered several other movies that showed disputed areas as being under Beijing's control.The list includes '' Crazy Rich Asians ''  [2018], ''Abominable''[2019] and  ''Uncharted'' [2022] among others.

BlackpInk And The Philippines 

The Philippines is considering banning ''Barbie'' before its scheduled release there on July 19, with the authorities saying last week that the movie was under review.

A Philippine senator Francis N. Tolentino, said that screening it would denigrate Philippine sovereignty.

Separately, a Vietnamese official said last week  that the country's Culture Ministry was trying to verify whether a Beijing-based Blackpink concert promoter,  iMe, supports the nine-dash line. The promoter 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 inaccessible last Friday. Its Korean branch, along with Blackpink's production company, YG Entertainment, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As of Monday, Blackpink, a K-pop juggernaut, was still scheduled to perform two shows at the national stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, in late July.

Contrasting Views :

The ''Barbie'' ban was widely discussed online in China last week, after the Foreign Ministry in Beijing criticized Vietnam for linking the South China Sea to ''normal cultural exchange.''

Many Chinese social media users have been dismissive of the spat, saying that Hollywood would always choose China over Vietnam.

By contrast, a few prominent Vietnamese observers said in an interview that their government's  ''Barbie''  ban was consistent with earlier efforts to protect Vietnamese sovereignty in the sea and partly a reflection of the Communist Party's sensitivity to domestic criticism of its China policy.

The ''Barbie'' was also successful, they added, because it got the international news media talking again about Vietnam's territorial grievances.

The World Students Society thanks author Mike Ives,  Chau Doan [ reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam], Li You contributed research from Shanghai.


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