A U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet lands in Gwangju, South Korea, during a joint exercise in May. (Park Chul-hog/Yonhap/AP)

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, an intensive military readiness exercise involving tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops, would not take place this August. This confirmed one of the most remarkable outcomes of the June 12 Trump-Kim summit — when President Trump announced at a news conference that the United States would suspend military exercises with South Korea.

Calling these exercises “provocative” and “expensive,” Trump also suggested that he was willing to consider removing all 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea in exchange for North Korean advances toward its denuclearization pledge.

Skipping a single military exercise is unlikely to dramatically change the status quo

Missing or postponing one exercise won’t transform the U.S. force posture, relations with allies or adversaries’ security policies. The United States and South Korea have suspended joint military exercises before, in the 1990s. This year, the two allies agreed to delay by several weeks a different set of military exercises during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

But military exercises serve multiple functions and aren’t just a bargaining chip. There are multiple audiences carefully observing — and calculating — what Trump’s statement might mean.

In the front row are South Korea, Japan and China. The abrupt cancellation — and the possibility of reducing or removing U.S. troops from Korea altogether — could have deeper consequences. Here are some key issues that may be at stake.

Surprise policy reversals don’t sit well with U.S. allies

Neither U.S. allies nor the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), it seems, received advance notification of the U.S. intent to suspend large-scale military exercises. So it’s not surprising to see the alarm evident in statements from Seoul and Tokyo.

The South Korean military, apparently caught off guard, issued a brief statement on June 12 that “there is a need to discern the exact meaning and intent of President Trump’s comments.”

Speaking to reporters a few days later, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stated that the joint military exercises are “important pillars in maintaining regional peace and stability.”

The concerns of U.S. allies may be justified, given historical precedents of Washington’s key policy reversals without advance notice — from Trump’s announcement in May that the summit was canceled all the way back to the Nixon administration’s quest to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s and perceived “abandonment” of Taiwan in the process.

This “Nixon shock” was compounded by the fact that more than 40,000 South Korean troops were fighting alongside their U.S. allies in Vietnam at the time. Fears of a weakened alliance helped spur a five-year military modernization plan, including secret plans for a nuclear development program in South Korea and increased support for Japan’s defense buildup plan — the National Defense Program Outline — launched in 1972.

Here’s the big issue: Whether intended or not, the cancellation of military exercises and mention of U.S. military retrenchment can signal a decline in U.S. commitment to the defense of Korea — and Asia.

Governments rely on a mix of both verbal intent and demonstrative behaviors to signal credibility, which is why North Korea conducted six nuclear tests even after declaring its nuclear status. In a similar vein, military exercises can be a type of costly signal — to reassure allies and to deter aggression from adversaries.

And what about China?

China ends up one of the immediate beneficiaries of the summit. On North Korea, the Xi Jinping government has consistently pushed two main agendas. The first is a policy of “double suspension” — North Korea halts its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the U.S. suspension of military exercises. The second is a “dual-track approach” of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula while building a permanent peace system in East Asia — one that may see a reduced role for U.S. troops in the region.

The Trump administration rejected the double-suspension proposal last year, and a State Department spokesman suggested that the United States and China had agreed that they would not endorse this type of “freeze-for-freeze” deal. Beijing, however, quickly rebutted this by maintaining that the double-suspension policy remained the “best option.”

China has also been a vocal critic of South Korea’s decision to deploy the U.S.-designed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. While the United States and South Korea maintain that THAAD is a legitimate means to counter a threat from North Korea, Beijing sees the deployment as the latest symbol of a strengthened U.S. military presence, potentially undermining China’s nuclear deterrence. Recent events could embolden China to demand the removal of THAAD from South Korea. 

Avoiding costly long-term consequences

Trump rationalized the suspension of these military drills as a cost-saving measure and negotiation tactic. Former and current military officials, though, argue that such exercises help maintain combat readiness, tactical and operational coordination, and strong alliance relations.

While welcoming the peace-building momentum, the South Korean public has concerns about the future of the alliance. A recent survey shows that 93 percent of respondents oppose the reduction or withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for North Korea’s stated intent to denuclearize.

Governments adjust the frequency and intensity of military exercises as needed. And we have seen escalation — and de-escalation — of these exercises in the past, but in conjunction with other negotiation tools, such as sanctions, and in service of broader strategic goals.

Here’s an example — Max Thunder was introduced in 2009 as a new, force-projecting form of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise, partly in response to North Korean nuclear activities. Conversely, in 1992, the United States and South Korea skipped the annual Team Spirit military exercise, a quid pro quo for Pyongyang allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nuclear reactor site. When North Korea resumed nuclear activities after this apparent breakthrough, the United States and South Korea promptly restarted joint drills.

Such a coordinated action-for-action mechanism can be a prudent guide — not only for future negotiations with North Korea but also to sustain healthy alliance relations.

Seo-Hyun Park is associate professor of government and law at Lafayette College. She is the author of Sovereignty and Status in East Asian International Relations” (Cambridge University Press, 2017). 

Il Hyun Cho is assistant professor of government and law and Asian studies at Lafayette College. He is the author of Global Rogues and Regional Orders: The Multidimensional Challenge of North Korea and Iran” (Oxford University Press, 2016).