German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ahead of the G20 Summit in the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg, Germany, 06 July 2017. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa via AFP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ahead of the G20 Summit in the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg, Germany, 06 July 2017. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa via AFP

A Vietnamese asylum-seeker who fled his country last year after allegedly causing a state-owned petroleum firm to lose almost US$150 million was kidnapped by Vietnam’s secret service on the streets of Berlin, the German foreign ministry said yesterday.

Earlier this week, Vietnam’s ministry of public security told local state-media that Trinh Xuan Thanh had voluntarily returned to Hanoi and turned himself in to the police. This was later contested by the German government, which asserted that he was abducted in Berlin and then forcibly taken back to Hanoi.

In a diplomatic rebuke, Germany ordered the expulsion of Vietnam’s intelligence chief. A Financial Times report said that Germany had also ordered the removal of Vietnam’s ambassador, but subsequent reports said the expulsion order was limited to the Vietnamese embassy’s spy chief.

“There is no serious doubt about the participation of the Vietnamese intelligence service and embassy in the kidnapping of a Vietnamese citizen on German soil,” a German foreign ministry spokesman told international media.

Thanh, who between 2007 and 2013 served as head of the state-owned PetroVietnam Construction Joint Stock Corporation, a subsidiary of energy giant PetroVietnam, is accused of mismanagement and losing the firm millions of dollars, a crime in Vietnam. An investigation into his activities began last year following his dismissal from the National Assembly, to which he was only elected one month before his sacking.

In May, Dinh La Thang, a former general director of PetroVietnam, was dismissed from his post as the Communist Party leader of Ho Chi Minh City and from the Politburo on charges similar to the ones lodged against Thanh.

Thang’s case was rumored to be politically motivated due to his close ties to former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who lost a power struggle for the ruling Communist Party’s top secretary general position at a January 2016 congress. Thanh fled to Germany last summer to seek asylum and had been fighting extradition charges ever since.

Former Vietnamese Nguyen Tan Dung was viewed as a strong advocate for stronger ties to the West. Photo: Reuters/Mike Blake

According to reports, Thanh was likely kidnapped on July 23 by armed men while walking near Berlin’s Tiergarten, a central park. The day-light abduction was witnessed by several people who informed the police.

Then, when Thanh appeared back in Hanoi on July 31, the German foreign ministry gave the Vietnamese ambassador 48 hours to return him to Berlin. When the deadline lapsed, they went public with the story.

It is not known, however, how the Vietnamese secret service was able to transport Thanh out of the country and back to Vietnam. It is possible that he was flown directly out of Germany, but he could have also been moved to another country before leaving Europe.

In June, Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang, made a state visit to Russia, where the two countries agreed to foster “coordination in ensuring national security and coping with non-traditional security challenges,” Vietnamese state-media reported.

Analysts now wonder why Hanoi would make such a bold and potentially costly move: Was it stupidity, arrogance or a calculated decision?

Germany’s foreign ministry spokesman said Thanh’s kidnapping was an “unprecedented and shocking” case. The spokesman added that the incident “has the potential to negatively affect relations massively.” Germany is Vietnam’s largest European trading partner, with bilateral trade worth almost US$9 billion last year.

Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong is closely aligned with China. Photo: AFP/Pool/Luong Thai Linh

What is perhaps most irksome for German officials is that they discussed Thanh’s case with Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc when he visited Germany in May to take part in the G-20 Summit, according to media reports.

At the time, it appeared Vietnamese-German relations were on the ascent. When Phuc met with Chancellor Angela Merkel in May they announced that the Vietnam-Germany Business Forum had just overseen the signing of US$1.7 billion worth of new trade deals.

The Vietnamese government has also placed a great deal of emphasis on pushing through a proposed free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), known as the EVFTA. It was agreed to last year but ratification, earlier expected for early 2018, has been delayed because of an EU ruling that each member nation has to agree to it.

The EVFTA is now the best free trade hope for Vietnam after US President Donald Trump withdrew America from the much larger Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have significantly boosted Vietnam’s economy and exports.

US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

The EU is Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner, after China, and second-biggest export market, after the United States.

Human rights lobbyists are now pressuring the European Parliament, one of the EU’s legislative chambers, and individual nation members to delay ratification and amend the EVFTA to include more explicit requirements that Vietnam improves its human rights record.

Germany, one of the most influential countries in the EU, also has the ability to lobby its neighbors into aborting the EVFTA, a fact that must have been known by whichever Vietnamese official gave the order for Thanh’s kidnapping.

In a fractured Communist Party, however, this order could have come from any one of Vietnam’s power brokers and not necessarily from the highest-office, the Party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

Still, Trong has made strong claims about fighting corruption in recent months and has been at the foreground during the arrests of various allegedly wayward state enterprise executives.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) delivers a speech at the Vietnam-Japan Business meeting on January 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool

Thanh’s abduction also comes after the Vietnamese government arrested five prominent activists in the last two weeks, in what analysts are calling an alarming crackdown on critics of the one-party state.

Tran Quoc Thuan, a former member of Vietnam’s National Assembly, said he was “surprised” by Thanh’s return to Hanoi, the BBC reported this week. He added that while Thanh could have returned voluntarily, “the possibility of kidnapping is higher.”

Just as important as the economic fallout from this incident are the political upshots. The kidnapping was carried out in “blatant violation of…international law,” said the German foreign ministry.

How Merkel responds will be important. Some pundits claim Germany has now taken over the mantle of “leader of the free world” since the inauguration of US President Trump.

Vietnamese and Chinese communist youths wave flags to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at a meeting in Hanoi on November 6, 2015. Photo: AFP/Pool/ Na Son Nguyen

While Merkel has dismissed this, she has campaigned ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September on the promise to uphold a liberal international order. Merkel hopes to win her fourth term as chancellor.

It is unlikely that Berlin will push for formal sanctions against Hanoi, analysts say. Still, the incident will nonetheless dim the view of some of Vietnam’s allies who previously backed its South China Sea claims as being integral to an international law-based global order.

“[In July] Hanoi bent the knee to Beijing, humiliated in a contest over who controls the South China Sea, the most disputed waterway in the world,” Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, wrote last week in a media report.

The Vietnamese ambassador in Beijing was apparently warned last month that military action would be taken by China unless Vietnam stopped exploration and drilling with a Spanish oil company in disputed waters. Hanoi acquiesced, reportedly on the orders of General Secretary Trong.

A Vietnamese dissident who requested anonymity speculated that after Hanoi’s recent capitulation to China, it might begin forming closer ties to Beijing, turning its back on the West and the international community in the process.

That may explain the Vietnamese government’s audacity in abducting one of its nationals in the heart of a European capital.

Editors Note: A previous version (Aug. 3) of this story cited reports saying that Germany had expelled Vietnam’s ambassador. Those reports have since been corrected to say only the Vietnamese intelligence attache faces expulsion. We apologize for the mistake.” 

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