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Vietnam is Censoring Politically Sensitive Maps. It's Not Finished and Not Alone

By Ralph Jennings November 08, 2019

The fate in Vietnam of two maps that show China's claim to a disputed tract of sea heralds a longer-term effort at expunging material that officials find politically offensive – and not just in Vietnam, analysts say.

Both maps, one in a luxury Volkswagen car and the other in a DreamWorks film, show the nine-dash line that Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea. Vietnamese officials contest the line and say some of the waters within it are theirs. The two countries have sparred since the 1970s over maritime sovereignty.

Vietnam will probably keep censoring material that implies Chinese sovereignty over the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, Asia scholars say. They would effectively follow China's continued use of authoritarian rule to ban websites and publications that violate its stances on international issues.

"I think this is but the latest series of essentially what I would call posturing," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. "You have to keep on emphasizing your sovereignty over a certain part, because if you don't, then the international community will think that you are giving up."

First a film, then a car

Vietnamese cinemas stopped showing the movie "Abominable" in mid-October because the animated scenes depict a map that delineates Beijing's claim to the South China Sea, domestic media outlet VnExpress International reported. Vietnam disputes the Chinese claim.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also overlap Chinese claims in the sea that's rich in fisheries and energy reserves. Chinese maritime activity angers especially Vietnam because China controls the 130-islet Paracel archipelago that both sides claim.

On Monday this week, Vietnamese customs decided to confiscate a $173,000 Volkswagen five-seater after its GPS map displayed China's "illegal" nine-dash line, state-run Viet Nam News reported. The importer will be fined up to $2,600 and Volkswagen Viet Nam as much as $1,724.

"The General Department of Customs said that all competent government agencies in a meeting on the incident had unilaterally agreed that such a violation must be handled strictly," Viet Nam News reported.

A private university in Vietnam decided on its own to jettison 500 to 700 books used by first-year Chinese language students because the texts carried the same kind of map, VnExpress International reported Sunday.

Chinese playbook

Beijing has asked dozens of foreign companies over the past two years to tweak wording on their websites so it reflects Chinese political views. Foreign firms have complied particularly by labeling self-ruled Taiwan as part of China, per Beijing's stance.

China and Vietnam as communist countries are "very consistent" in their posturing, Oh said. Citizens in both often kick off a case by alerting authorities. Filmgoers spotted the map in Vietnam. In China, netizens had noticed foreign websites implying Taiwan was a country.

Vietnam, going forward, will probably play up and shoot down any pro-Beijing South China Sea references they see, analysts say.

"Now there is something like a general trend, every material, movie, media and book that has Chinese maps of the nine-dash line," said Nguyen Thanh Trung, Center for International Studies (SCIS) director at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

Maps are suddenly subject to review because of "heightened tension," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at market research firm IHS Markit. A Chinese survey vessel had fanned anger earlier in the year when it was frequenting waters near a Vietnamese offshore oil exploration site.

China has consecrated its claims throughout the sea over the past decade by using landfill to build islands.

Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, as democracies, would find it harder to ban material.

However, the producer of Abominable decided against screening the film in Malaysia last month after censors there objected to the map. In the Philippines, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said the film's map should be cut.

Vietnam's limitation

Exporters of map-bearing material must mind their politics now, Biswas said.

"Somehow one has to avoid these sensitivities, but it's very hard because everyone has their own claim, so if you portray anything there's a danger that someone will object," he said.

Vietnam, however, will avoid openly criticizing international companies too often because it depends on foreign factory investment for economic growth, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

China can tap into its much larger domestic market for economic stability.

"The last thing that I think Vietnam would like to be portrayed as is a bully or engaging in economic coercion, in the way that Beijing's practices have created that image, so I think Vietnam will probably take a softer tone in order to preserve a relatively good image," Nagy said.

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