In an exclusive interview, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney talks to Nation Multimedia Group chairman Suthichai Yoon about the current US policies towards Asia, including economic and security, as well as whether the US has requested the use of military bases
The United States will be very busy with Ukraine, Crimea and what Russia is going to do. How will that affect [President Barack] Obama’s policies towards Asia? Some people think his “pivot to Asia” policy might suffer. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I don’t thinks so. Ukraine is obviously important. You [Nation Multimedia Group] had a team on the ground there reporting. Also, you see our European friends and allies discussing about Ukraine. But President Obama met with the Chinese premier at the Nuclear Security Summit and discussed not just about Ukraine but the whole range of Asia issues. He will be visiting Asia next month and many other times this year.
The president has been very clear. Asia matters to him. Secretary of Defence [Chuck] Hagel is meeting with Asean defence ministers next week. Secretary [John] Kerry has been here five times already in the region in his first year [as secretary of state].
But not in Thailand yet?
Not in Thailand. That’s still to be decided. You have had the president here already but not Secretary Kerry.
What in concrete terms do you see happening around Thailand and Asean in this pivot to Asia?
I think Asean is growing hugely important. It’s not government-to-government but business. The US-Asean Business Council is leading a delegation of CEOs of American businesses to Asean countries.
You see a lot of people-to-people exchange across Asean and I think when it comes to the Asean Economic Community that’s going to open the doors wide for academic exchanges.
What about security?
That collaboration is quite strong already. We have just finished in Thailand the Cobra Gold exercises, the 33rd year. With 28 countries coming this year, it is the largest multinational military exercise in the world.
Now including China?
China has always been an observer. This year, they participated in an engineering exercise as well.
It’s very interesting. Full participants like Japan, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, United States ... And I also enjoyed the Humanitarian Day. You see the medical doctors from these countries join together sharing medical techniques. That’s phenomenal.
So it’s not only about security, about war, but it’s also about humanitarian assistance?
Increasingly these days the dialogue among Asian states, the United States and others – Australia also joined, New Zealand, Canada [did too] – this is about how we work together in times of natural disaster.
You saw the Philippines typhoon and more recently the very tragic story of the Malaysian airliner, but you saw all of these countries working together to search the missing airliner.
Having our military prepared, one of the things we saw when the Philippines typhoon hit, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, we were able to contribute very quickly because they had exercises together so they could call the Filipinos and asked ‘What do you need? Ships? Airplanes? Supplies?’
There have been reports that the US government has been seeking permission to use military bases in the Philippines, Vietnam and possibly Thailand. Is that true?
The only place that we are working on an access agreement is the Philippines. It’s called [an] access agreement, so it will not be the [US] bases. We would negotiate an expansion of access. So you might see one of our ships quite often out of Philippines navy bases. You might see some aircraft on the ground, depending on how the negotiations will come out. We are not currently negotiating with Thailand.
In Thailand, there has been no talk about access to bases yet?
No. We have all of our regular exercises, so you have US military who have just finished our annual exercise. So you might have seen some US aircraft [in Thailand].
Do you have access to Thai bases, air bases, if you need it?
We’ll have to ask. For example, for the relief of Cyclone Nargis or the tsunami in Aceh, we asked Thailand to agree to have the US and other aircraft and navy come in to stage some of the relief efforts.
There was speculation, when they criticised you for taking the side of the government, that the Americans were asking for an agreement to have access to one of the Thai bases here. That’s why you tried to please the government so that it will be easier for you to negotiate.
No negotiations for bases in Thailand. We don’t have any discussion on bases in Thailand. But we have a great relationship on security.
Will we see more American war ships visiting Thailand?
I think we’ll see as part of our rebalance. We have more ships in the region but it will also depend on what happens. For example, now some US war ships are helping searching for Malaysia Airlines so they are not visiting Thai ports right now.
So the re-balancing will mean you will be more active in security side?
In every side.
The interview will be on air in “Timeline with Suthichai Yoon” programme on Nation TV today (Sunday) at 7.30pm.