Barbie VS The Nine-Dash Line: What’s the Connection?

Since the announcement of a live-action movie about a childhood doll, the news has been constantly reporting about Barbie. Whether it is about the iconic soundtrack, casting, trailer, or the fact that the sets caused a pink paint shortage worldwide, Barbie quickly became an international hot topic. The sensational movie hit a sour spot in the international community when a scene in the trailer shows a nine-dash line on the world map next to Asia. This scene has led to Vietnam banning Barbie and the Philippines releasing the movie under the conditions that the map is blurred, which begs the question: what exactly is the nine-dash line, and why is it sparking so much controversy? 

The nine-dash line is a maritime dotted line that China draws on its maps in the South China Sea. This line is the Chinese claim to the international waters it shares with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan. The nine-dash line is not accepted outside China, making the South China Sea highly contested. A country can lay claim to international waters in either of two ways. One way involves countries abiding by the United Nations Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS). The second way is that they can implement Special Maritime Jurisdiction clauses. China is a member of the UN, and it has agreed to abide by the UNCLOS laws. 

Yet China managed to find loopholes in these laws to lay claim to their portion of the South China Sea. First, China argues that it has archipelagic status due to the islands it has built in the South China Sea. Essentially, countries granted archipelagic status have international waters separating those countries. Indonesia, for example, is a country granted archipelagic status. Currently, China has not been granted archipelagic status by the United Nations. 

Second, China uses the twelve nautical miles rule in which islands and other provisions of a country get a territorial sea that is twelve nautical miles long. The artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea are also given twelve nautical miles, further expanding Chinese claim on the South China Sea. 

Third, UNCLOS laws allow for a 200-nautical mile economic exclusive zone (EEZ) for each country. China claims that its EEZ begins after the territorial sea from the artificial islands ends. All three of these combined cover a vast majority of the South China Sea. China also claims that the small part left is historically tied to China, further exerting its claim on the entire South China Sea.

But wait, this is the Chinese narrative. What about the other countries? What are their claims to the South China Sea?

Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei are in full accordance with the EEZ rules established by UNCLOS while also laying claim to a cluster of islands in the South China Sea. These islands, referred to as the Spratly Islands, are also claimed by China and are where China is building artificial islands. Out of all the countries that claim the South China Sea, the key players claiming the Spratly Islands are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and China. 

In July 2016, the Philippines charged China at an international court over their claims of the Spratly Islands. Essentially, China tried to claim the Ayungin Shoal, one of the small islands in the Spratly Islands, which is 105 nautical miles from the Philippines, making it within the EEZ of the Philippines. China tried to implement the cabbage patch strategy, which blocks off the island using military vessels and fishing boats. This strategy renders the blocked country weak. The Philippines brought this to court, which ruled in favor of the Philippines. Yet China refused to adhere to the court ruling, and many major international countries did not want to risk forcing China. These, and many more instances, explain why many countries are angry about the nine-dash line appearing in pop culture. 

Barbie is not the only movie banned by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries due to the depiction of the nine-dash line. Uncharted, starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, was banned in Vietnam, promptly followed by the Philippines. Other movies or TV shows banned include “Abominable” and Pine Gap. Even Crazy Rich Asians had to trim a clip that shows the world map (with the nine-dash line) on a handbag. 

This pattern leads to another question: why do Hollywood movies include the nine-dash line on their maps if it leads to controversy? 

The answer lies in the fact that China is Hollywood’s biggest market. For example, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” hauled $300 million from China alone. This movie is just one example showing how China generates the most money for Hollywood. Hollywood producers and production companies sat up and took notice of this. They wanted to make maximum profit, and the best way to do it was to appeal to their largest audience demographic. But for a Hollywood movie to make it onto the screen of a local Beijing theater, it needs to pass the government-controlled censor board. A Hollywood movie would be sent to the Ministry of Propaganda, which would then review the film and ask to cut out or change scenes that do not match with ideals present in China. This phenomenon explains why many Hollywood movies risk leaving a nine-dash line map. The target audience banning a Hollywood movie would be too small compared to the bigger Chinese market. 

All this explains why Vietnam is banning Barbie and why the Philippines is allowing the movie to release under an exception. The vast history, cold conflict, and international influence over pop culture have brought this topic into the limelight and allowed the world to see the nuance behind a simple map in a five-second scene in a Hollywood movie.

Works Cited

Ives, Mike. “How ‘Barbie’ and Blackpink Entered South China Sea Map Spat.” The New York Times, 12 July 2023,

Shanghai, Hannah Beech /. “Just Where Exactly Did China Get the South China Sea Nine-Dash Line From?” Time, 19 July 2016,

How China Is Bending the Rules in the South China Sea.

Vox. “Why China Is Building Islands in the South China Sea.” YouTube, 17 Feb. 2017,

Gross, Terry. “Hollywood Relies on China to Stay Afloat. What Does That Mean for Movies?” NPR, 21 Feb. 2022,,released%20into%20their%20home%20market.&text=The%20economics%20have%20made%20it,office%20has%20flatlined.%20%E2%80%A6.

Langfitt, Frank. “Autobot$ Rule: Why Transformers 4 Is China’s Box Office Champ.” NPR, 11 Aug. 2014,