South Korea has reaped rewards from its policy of strategic ambiguity towards the US-China rivalry , avoiding antagonising Beijing, its largest trading partner, while remaining Washington’s military ally. However, developments in domestic politics before next year’s presidential election could spell the end of this approach . On one hand, there is Lee Jun-seok, the Harvard-educated leader of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), who clearly favours the US over China . Lee, 36, is too young to run for the top job, as the constitution prevents anyone under 40 becoming president, but former prosecutor general Yoon Suk-yeol, who broadly shares Lee’s views, is expected to join the PPP as its presidential candidate. On the other hand, if Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party becomes president, that could also shake the US-South Korea alliance. Lee, the Gyeonggi province governor, believes Seoul should strengthen relations with Beijing and elevate them to the level of a strategic partnership. With such clearly divergent visions of foreign policy competing for votes, next year’s election will inevitably have major implications for South Korea’s US-China balancing act, as well as its line on Japan and North Korea. Before Moon Jae-in became president, former leaders Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak prioritised relations with the US, although they also maintained ties with China with a view to ensuring North Korea’s stability , as Beijing remains Pyongyang’s only key ally and provides an economic lifeline. Heightened US-China tensions have it more difficult to maintain this position of neutrality, particularly as a younger generation of voters and leaders lean towards Washington. A recent survey in weekly news magazine Sisa In showed South Koreans in their 20s and 30s were more likely to express anti-Chinese sentiment, unlike their older counterparts who have more favourable views of Beijing. Issues driving these negative perceptions included micro dust from China polluting the Korean peninsula, China’s handling of Covid-19 and Beijing’s policies in Tibet , Xinjiang and Hong Kong . However, the shift in public opinion occurred largely after South Korea weathered China’s economic retaliation over the 2017 deployment of the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile defence system. Many South Koreans have also been angered by the perception that Chinese social media users have sought to appropriate aspects of their ancient culture, such as kimchi and hanbok (traditional Korean dress), by suggesting they are in fact Chinese. Aside from foreign policy, next year’s election looms as a referendum on Moon’s presidency, the performance of the ruling party and the South Korean public’s appetite for change. South Korean critics of leader Moon Jae-in dial up attacks on his US-China policy The Democratic Party has been hobbled by a string of controversies involving Moon’s aides, and the administration has been criticised for failure to curtail runaway housing prices as well as a scandal over insider property speculation implicating government officials. In April’s by-elections, the ruling party suffered a heavy defeat as younger voters delivered landslide victories for the PPP in the mayoral races in Seoul and Busan. Lee, the PPP leader, has never held public office but was credited with helping Oh Se-hoon win the Seoul mayoral race. Although his rise has excited a young electorate, several veterans regard Lee as a threat. Older politicians in both the Democratic Party and the PPP have questioned his lack of experience while rivals for the party leadership cast him as populist in the mould of former US president Donald Trump. It did little to damage Lee’s support among younger voters, and he secured the party leadership with 58 per cent of the vote. The PPP emerged from the political fallout of former president Park’s impeachment in 2016, which devastated her Saenuri Party, prompting it to merge with several other parties to form the PPP. For the first time since Park’s impeachment, the PPP’s approval rating has climbed to nearly 39 per cent, far exceeding the Democratic Party’s 29 per cent support. Older South Koreans generally maintain party affiliation based on ideologies stemming from the Cold War and the country’s democracy movement, but younger voters have demonstrated greater flexibility, particularly if elected officials do not keep their campaign promises. Yoon is currently being advised on foreign policy and national security by Kim Sung-han, a former foreign affairs deputy minister. He advised Lee Myung-bak’s administration to prioritise the US alliance, regarding it as crucial to denuclearisation of North Korea. To this effect, the PPP is expected to take a tougher line on North Korea than the Democratic Party has adopted under Moon. For his part, Lee Jun-seok last month said “unification by absorption through systemic superiority” would be the only way to reunify the Korean peninsula and has ruled out compromise with Pyongyang. Lee has also advocated a pragmatic approach to South Korea’s relationship with Japan , contrasting with the Democratic Party’s willingness to elevate historical grievances emanating from World War II and Japanese colonial rule. On the other hand, should Lee Jae-myung from the Democratic Party succeed Moon as president, he would most likely seek closer relations with China. He is being advised by Moon Chung-in, an enthusiastic proponent of strong South Korea-China ties. South Korea’s Moon cancels Tokyo trip amid outcry over diplomat’s remarks Lee also opposes US efforts to encourage South Korea-Japan cooperation and has attacked Tokyo over the various historical issues, such as forced labour and sexual slavery, that have contributed to the diplomatic rift between the two countries. He has also denounced US troops stationed in South Korea as an “occupying force”. Regardless of who wins the 2022 election, the result could be dramatic for South Korea’s foreign policy and with it the regional balance in East Asia . It means the US, China, Japan and North Korea will be watching closely as the leading candidates stake out their positions in pursuit of the presidency.