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The Straits Times says

Strong alliances key to global security

United States President Barack Obama has signalled to European leaders that the transatlantic relationship remains crucial to America. His comments would reassure European nations, particularly those in the east close to Russia's orbit. Europe was faced with strategic disquiet after president-designate Donald Trump appeared to question almost seven decades of America's security guarantee to the continent, when he said that he would help Nato allies only if they paid their way.

Mr Trump has voiced similar sentiments on defence ties maintained in Asia by successive administrations. In North-east Asia, where Japan and South Korea eye China uneasily at times, Washington's treaty relationship with Tokyo and Seoul matters to other countries as well which would prefer the current balance of power to be maintained in the region. According to one study, the US spends US$10 billion (S$14.3 billion) every year on its permanent overseas military presence. This figure, which does not include combat operations or military personnel costs, constitutes 2 per cent of the total US defence budget. Out of this overseas expenditure, US$7 billion goes to support bases in Germany, Japan and South Korea. However, Japan contributes between 50 and 75 per cent, according to various estimates, of American base costs, and South Korea 41 per cent.

It is par for the course for a new administration in Washington to consider if a better deal can be negotiated so it can fund a host of domestic programmes as well. The danger is that tunnel vision might dominate when different groups lobby for their interests to be placed above America's strategic goals. Are other nations taking advantage of the US security umbrella and will closing unnecessary bases "actually strengthen US national security", as an American scholar claimed? Mr Trump must also consider if rival powers will take advantage of any US withdrawal by projecting their own influence and cowing smaller nations. That would create an unstable global order which would threaten America's security as well.

In one estimate, world military spending was over US$1.6 trillion last year. A wheeler-dealer approach by a Trump team to divert defence funds could alter the relative heft of other powers. And one should not ignore the costs of containing any conflicts that arise should America's gaze turn inwards. A weakened alliance could impact trade too, undermining US economic interests.

Certainly, others should play their part too. India-Japan security ties, the sharing of military intelligence between Tokyo and Seoul, and maritime security cooperation in Asean point to an emergent regionalism in security affairs that is welcome. However, America must remain engaged in Asia and elsewhere to help secure a common strategic future. Mr Trump would do well to ponder these enduring realities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'Strong alliances key to global security'. Print Edition | Subscribe