Vietnam dodges a diplomatic bullet with America
Court-ordered deportation of US citizen William Anh Nguyen, held for over a month on security charges, shows Hanoi's repression has strategic limits
After spending more than a month in Vietnamese custody, American citizen William Anh Nguyen was convicted today of disturbing public order and will be soon deported back to the United States. He is expected to arrive back in America this weekend.
Nguyen, born in Houston, was arrested on June 10 after participating in the nationwide protests that engulfed Vietnam in response to the ruling Communist Party’s bid to introduce a new special economic zones (SEZ) law that demonstrators equated to selling Vietnamese land out to foreigners, namely China.
Protesters also carped against a pending cybercrime law that many feel will further restrict already limited online freedoms. It was passed days after the protests wound down, though deliberations on the SEZ law were delayed until later this year.
Arriving in Vietnam only a day before the protests, Nguyen was filmed being beaten and dragged away from the protests by authorities. He was arrested for “disturbing public order,” a security charge that carries a possible two-year prison sentence.
Earlier this month, six Vietnamese nationals were jailed for between 18 to 30 months each for the same charge after also participating the protests. Nguyen is also thought to have been arrested for “inciting others to be violent and disruptive,” which carries a possible prison sentence of up to seven years.
Weeks after his arrest, Nguyen appeared on state-owned television to express “regret” for participating in the protests and pledged “not [to] join any anti-state activities any more.” It is common for Vietnamese authorities to publicly broadcast confessions, many of which are said to be coerced.
“The jury acknowledged that the defendant admitted his illegal activities. Considering his sincerity, the court did not hand him a prison sentence,” Channel News Asia quoted a local state-owned newspaper. It is thought that Nguyen was ordered to pay a fine as punishment, though the amount is currently unknown.
Nguyen’s prolonged detention sparked a minor diplomatic fracas between Hanoi and Washington. When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Vietnam earlier this month he asked leading Communist Party politicians for a “speedy resolution” to Nguyen’s case. Over a dozen US lawmakers were less diplomatic in a recently released statement on Nguyen’s jailing.
“Hopefully Will Nguyen will be released soon; this diplomatic drama has gone on for too long and the forced televised confession was particularly despicable – a shameful habit Hanoi seems to have picked up from China and one that makes a mockery of any of their promises to protect the rule of law,” said US Congressman Chris Smith in a statement released before today’s trial.
The question now is whether Nguyen’s deportation will be enough to qualm criticism of Hanoi’s heavy hand among US politicians at a time Vietnam is looking to deepen strategic relations with the US.
Congressman Smith, who also chairs the Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, part of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added before today’s trial that “if Will is not released by this weekend, I will be asking the Congress to consider rolling back non-humanitarian economic assistance programs for Vietnam.”
In April, Smith introduced the bipartisan Vietnam Human Rights Act to Congress, which is set to be debated by the House Foreign Affairs Committee by the end of the month. If accepted, it would try aim to bind US relations with Vietnam on Hanoi improving its human rights record, as well as making a number of other policy changes.
But Nguyen’s case is only the latest in a number of diplomatic incidents started by Vietnam’s Communist Party. Last July, its intelligence officers kidnapped a Vietnamese national from the streets of Berlin, much to the chagrin of the German government, which swiftly expelled several Vietnamese diplomats.
Thanh, a former executive of state-owned PetroVietnam, was wanted by the Vietnamese government on corruption charges but absconded to Germany, where he was trying to claim asylum. After his kidnapping, he appeared on Vietnamese state television where he “confessed” to voluntarily returning to the country. He was later imprisoned for life on corruption charges.
The bilateral fracas was apparently smoothed last month when Hanoi allowed prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his wife to take up exile in Germany. That said, German authorities are currently investigating the kidnapping scandal, which this month saw a Vietnamese-Czech man charged with assisting Vietnam’s secret police in the snatch.
Hanoi no doubt hopes that the diplomatic spat with America over Nguyen’s detention will be considered as resolved with his pending deportation.
Still, it’s unclear to observers why the Vietnamese government would risk its good relations with Germany, its largest European trading partner, and America, its third-largest trading partner, through the incidents – though they were clearly perpetrated in part for domestic consumption.
The increasingly regressive rule of Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who has consolidated power over the Party since 2016, has intensified a crackdown on critical voices in the country’s burgeoning public sphere, including in online spaces. Human rights groups now estimate Vietnam holds over 100 political prisoners in jail.
To be sure, Trong and other leading officials face pressure from the Party’s regressive wing that has long opposed improving relations with America and considers it too lenient on outspoken activists.
By kidnapping one of its nationals from a European capital and harassing an American citizen, the Communist Party is also sending a tough message to the growing number of government critics and liberal activists.
Still, many analysts doubt Washington will inflict any punitive measures on Vietnam anytime soon, in contrast to the sanctions it has imposed on Cambodia for its democratic backsliding.
The Donald Trump administration has privileged Vietnam with numerous state visits, with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc being the first Southeast Asian leader to visit Trump’s White House in early 2017. Later that year, Trump traveled to Vietnam to take part in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The Trump administration has various strategic reasons to overlook the Vietnamese government’s clampdown on rights. First and foremost, Vietnam stands as Southeast Asia’s top opponent to China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
Equally important, Pompeo said during his visit to Hanoi earlier this month that Vietnam could serve as a good example for how North Korea, with which Trump has entered into historic talks, could normalize relations with the US.
If the Trump administration wants to show Pyongyang that America can do business with a communist nation and former adversary like Vietnam, then it makes sense for his administration not to instigate any policies that could look like America wants to democratize Vietnam – or, worse, supports regime change.
In this light, Nguyen’s deportation will be treated as a win-win in Hanoi and Washington. American officials will applaud the fact that they helped to secure the release of an American citizen, while Vietnamese officials will celebrate that they extracted an apology from Nguyen, looked tough on the world stage and, most likely, pulled back in time to avoid a full-blown diplomatic incident.