South China Sea drama: Philippines pulls Netflix episodes over 9-dash line

Netflix has removed two episodes of spy drama Pine Gap from its service in the Philippines after local regulators ruled that they were “unfit for public exhibition” for depicting China’s self-proclaimed nine-dash line in a map of the South China Sea.

Vietnam made a similar complaint in July, resulting in Netflix pulling all six Pine Gap episodes from the Vietnam platform.

The problems encountered by the streaming company are a reminder of how the nine-dash line has become an increasingly contentious sovereignty symbol when it crops up in television shows, movies and computer games. It has been embedded in Chinese cultural and entertainment products for years in concerted efforts to reaffirm Beijing’s territorial claims, and raises hackles when it shows up elsewhere.

China uses the line to demarcate its claim over about 90 percent of the South China Sea despite its rejection by neighboring countries and invalidation by an international tribunal.

Among the other claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam have most actively disputed China’s sweeping claims.

Pine Gap (2018) is a six-part international political thriller released on Netflix (credit: Netflix)
Pine Gap (2018) is a six-part international political thriller released on Netflix (credit: Netflix)

‘Government demand’

Netflix announced earlier this week that two episodes of the Australian TV series had been removed from its Philippines streaming platform “by government demand,” without giving more details.

Pine Gap is a political thriller and the removed episodes, the second and third in the series, were set in the context of conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea region.

In the episodes, a map with the nine-dash line was shown projected on a large screen in the control room of a spy base at Pine Gap which is depicted in the show.

In a statement on Monday, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that “following a DFA complaint, the national Movie and Television Review and Classification Board handed down its decision to pull out the episodes of the political drama Pine Gap for showing a map of China’s nine-dash line and violating Philippine sovereignty.”

The DFA said this decision underscored that “every instrumentality of the government, whenever presented with the opportunity, has the responsibility to counter China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to assert the Philippines’ territorial integrity.”

Theodore Te, former Philippine Supreme Court spokesperson, took to Twitter to support the removal, calling the Netflix action “dangerous.”

“The show is a work of fiction and not a documentary; the misleading portion on the 9-dash line could have been addressed by adding a mandatory explanation appearing on screen during those scenes,” he tweeted.

Credit: RFA
Credit: RFA

‘Unconventional approach’

Before Pine Gap, two TV series released on Netflix – the Chinese series Put Your Head On My Shoulder and CBS’s Madam Secretary – also featured the controversial map.

While international streaming services and film companies may not pay much attention to the nine-dash line, “asserting Beijing’s territorial claims over Taiwan and the South China Sea islands has been a consistent policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its inception,” said Alex Vuving, a professor at the Hawaii-based Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, who conducted an in-depth research into China’s so-called “strategic messaging.”

“Maps have been playing an important role in this policy,” he told RFA.

“Chinese cultural products since the 1950s have already featured China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea whenever they printed a map of China. The map would have had a U-shaped dotted line showing Taiwan and most of the South China Sea islands, one of which was occupied by Taiwan, as Chinese territory,” Vuving added.

The Philippine movie regulator was quoted as saying that “using the medium of a motion picture is but China’s unconventional approach to gain an upper hand in the territorial conflict in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.”

Norwegian historian Stein Tonnenson, a well-known scholar on the South China Sea, explained that the nine-dash line which encircles all the islands, waters and the continental shelf inside, “is of great symbolic importance in Chinese nationalist education.”

“Anyone Chinese will be seen as unpatriotic if using or making maps without the line,” Tonnenson said.

“We have been watching Chinese films like a hawk,” said an administrator of Hoang Sa (Paracels) Forum, a popular Vietnamese online community focused on the South China Sea, who goes by the initials D.T.

“As maritime disputes with China have become a very hot topic in Vietnam, our community members look extremely closely at each map of the South China Sea shown in the movies. We found that an increasing number of Chinese films, including even romcoms (romantic comedies), make efforts to include the map of the nine-dash line,” D.T. said, adding it “must be a comprehensive and continuous strategy” on China’s part.

In the words of the Philippine movie and TV classification board, “such portrayal is a crafty attempt to perpetuate and memorialize in the consciousness of the present generation of viewers and the generations to come the illegal nine-dash line.”

Little Panda’s Adventure

Vuving said that “aware of the power of propaganda, the PRC has been adept at inculcating the ideas it prefers into the minds of other people.”

“Maps are important weapons of China’s “three warfares,” a major tool of Chinese grand strategy in the South China Sea. The “three warfares” include public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare,” he said.

This sovereignty symbol is seen widely across cultural platforms. An animated movie – Abominable – jointly produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and DreamWorks Animation, was pulled from theaters in Vietnam in 2019 because of a scene involving the nine-dash line.

In 2020, an “educational game” for kids entitled “Little Panda’s World Adventure,” produced by Chinese company Zhi Yong Information Technology, was also purged from Google Play and Apple’s App Store in Vietnam for the same reason.

“One of the growing trends is that China has been carrying out a comprehensive campaign to include its sovereignty claims in scientific works and researches, which are supposed to be objective and non-biased,” said Pham Thanh Van, founding member of the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative, an independent research foundation of the South China Sea.

She recalled occasions when the nine-dash line appeared in reputable publications such as Science Magazine, the journal Nature and the National Geographic.

“This is using science to spread political messages,” Van said, adding that the Vietnamese authorities and the scientific community have yet to work out how to “systematically address this conundrum.”

“You can reject and ban materials with offensive content in Vietnam and demand that foreign companies based inside the country respect your stance, but you cannot do that to what is published overseas,” she said.

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