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 Courtesy of Marine Corps Installations Pacific/Caleb Eames

US Military Exercises In Korea: If You Want Peace, Don’t Listen To China’s Proposal

Peter Roberts
Commentary, 31 August 2017
To de-escalate tensions between the US and North Korea, China has suggested halting Pyongyang’s nuclear test programme and missile firings in exchange for a suspension of all US and South Korean military exercises. Yet, China would be the only beneficiary of such a plan, and regional security would be weakened.

Military exercises are a vital requirement for all states and play an important role in maintaining security equilibria. A genuine deterrence stance, in general or against a specific actor, requires the regular demonstration of a credible threat.

The costs and risks of altering the equilibrium beyond that which is acceptable to either party must be clearly evident, and show – beyond doubt – that trying to change the status quo would result in significant harm. Removing that threat of retribution, or indeed of pre-emptive action, would also remove the foundation of any presumption of deterrence as a construct for security.

Some argue that temporarily halting US-led military exercises on the Korean Peninsula might be conducive for negotiations to take place, but the reality of force capability is that it is harder to get militaries ready for conflict (and thus form a credible deterrent force), than it is to keep them at a high readiness. Any suspension of military exercises would therefore entail a higher tempo and pace of exercises in the future – or an acceptance of a military capability at a lower level of effectiveness, and thus increased risk if conflict were to break out.

To many commentators this might seem an acceptable price to pay, except that one must also acknowledge that in a subsequent conflict many more people will die and be injured, fewer good decisions will be made (by commanders who have lost experience in high-intensity training), and – in all likelihood – any conflict will be prolonged.

Military exercises also have a very real impact on the general public of allies and also on domestic electorates. In the case of the Korean impasse, there is a continuing requirement to reassure the people of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and, indeed, places as far away as Australia, of the enduring viability of the US security guarantee.

Military exercises, along with permanently based troops on the soil of allied countries, are a clear demonstration of that US commitment and allow normal life, trade and work to continue under the assurance that forces are working to deliver security. Exercises such as the just-concluding Ulchi-Freedom Guardian also have a clear impact on audiences at home.

So, particularly in the case of the Korean Peninsula, military exercises continue to perform a vital role in the wider posture of the US and its alliances in maintaining the UN ceasefire which has broadly held since 1956. They are a key ingredient in sending a message to audiences about the potential consequences of any action intended to change the security situation in a region, and thereby alter the decision-making dynamic. Exercises are generally acknowledged to perform such a function, and have done so for generations.

Yet to some commentators there appears to be a belief that the wisdom of generations is false and that new thinking can overturn the lessons of history and security. It cannot: the consequent reduction in US military activity would not boost regional security; it would only suit China and boost Beijing’s expansionist agenda.

Peter Roberts is Director of Military Sciences at RUSI.

Banner image: US and Korean personnel liaise on USS Blue Ridge as part of Ulchi-Freedom Guardian.

The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Peter Roberts
Director Military Sciences, RUSI

Peter is Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, having been the Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and... read more

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