Tuesday, February 20, 2018

All at sea

Keith Subero logo36

Mark Fraser

First, let’s clear up the Government’s little word game over OPVs and LRVs. Let’s stop the confusion; an LRV (long range vessel) is just another OPV (offshore patrol vessel). Be clear about this: LRVs and OPVs are the same.

Second, it has happened again: another diplomatic mis-step — this time in China. Remember the Prime Minister’s first visit to the United States and the mixed reports from New York on her non-appearance at scheduled events?

Recall also, the controversy during the official visit to India. Remember those questions that arose in the diplomatic community over the appropriateness of a visiting prime minister attempting to kiss the feet of the Indian president?

Remember too, the visit to the US last year when only a deputy secretary of state was “available” for an official meeting, a situation that was described, again in the diplomatic community, as a “slight” by the US government?

During the recent official visit to China, we learned from the Office of the Prime Minister that the PM told the Chinese premier she was aware that his country was building two LRVs and she “pleaded” with him and “convinced” him to sell one to T&T in the shortest possible time.

To best understand the rashness of that official statement one needs to go back somewhere around 2002-3, when our Coast Guard was instructed to begin studying the OPVs for possible purchase.

A specialist unit studied the use of the vessels worldwide and then developed designs appropriate for local waters and sat under inter-ministerial supervision with various technical teams from the ministries of National Security and Finance.

After stops, restarts, redesigns and grinding deliberations, the Manning government in 2007 ordered, through worldwide tendering, three OPVs from the British dockyard, BAE.

The firm granted the government, in the interim, two used vessels, with spares. A 100-metre jetty was constructed at Coast Guard headquarters and some 150 men were sent to the UK for training, with others scheduled to follow. There were construction delays and BAE agreed to compensate T&T substantially.

In 2010, the new People’s Partnership administration cancelled the BAE contracts giving reasons reported as “incredible”, and varying with every new ministerial pronouncement.

One insider said last week: “For those of us in the know, the cancellation of the OPVs remains incredible! The reasons given to the media are not accurate. All ministers (of National Security) were briefed on the project, yet there are these public excuses. So T&T, after ten years, is back to zero.”

The cancellation was arbitrated in London, and BAE returned the deposit, not because T&T won, but because the vessels were bought immediately by the Brazilian coast guard which has since ordered six more.

The Manning government had intended to use the OPVs mainly in drug surveillance operations throughout the southern Caribbean. Yet, the People’s Partnership Government cancelled the BAE order without any replacement strategy, providing only the PM’s explanation that the fight against drugs would not be on the sea but on land.

Last year, the National Security Ministry conducted an audit of the Coast Guard. In January-February a team visited South Korea, Netherlands and Colombia to view their dockyards, and according to sources its members were in the process of reporting to the National Security Minister when our PM made the request to the Chinese premier.

The new National Security Minister now talks glibly about his plans for the LRVs to be part of a three-tier security wall around T&T. But a country does not purchase an OPV as if it were a retail store item, which is what the PM did in China last month. It takes years of detailed maritime studies and financial negotiations to conclude such arrangements.

Apparently, realising the Beijing mis-step, the PM last week tried to correct herself. She gave a new narrative; her request was neither “Chinese madness” nor absurdity.

“It was no on-the-spot decision. Far from it! It is a matter we have been looking at for some time,” and she added that the technical team had been mandated to look at the issue some time ago.

But her Beijing request was said to be a done deal. The statement from the Office of the Prime Minister indicated that the PM had “convinced” the Chinese premier to sell the LRV to T&T in the shortest possible time.

Yet the PM said on Thursday: “If a purchase is made from China, or from any other country, it will be in accordance with the agreed criteria and technical requirements, as well as the professional recommendations of the team.”

So on one hand there is the PM’s official request to the Chinese premier; on the other hand, she speaks of her Government’s plans to assess the report of the technical team.

Of considerable importance will be concerns of the governments of the Netherlands, South Korea and Colombia — the countries the team visited — which have not been informed through diplomatic channels of the Prime Minister’s Beijing decision.

So the Beijing deal? Or the team’s assessment? Once again we in T&T are left wondering which way is north.

• Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a

career in communication

and management.