In the weeks leading up to the South Korean presidential elections, controversies surrounding the Winter Olympics in Beijing have dominated Chinese media headlines and internet discussions. Many South Koreans were outraged by the sight of a woman dressed in hanbok , a form of traditional Korean dress, carrying a Chinese flag at the Olympics opening ceremony. They said it was Beijing’s latest attempt to claim aspects of Korean culture. Anger again erupted after two South Korean short-track speed skaters were disqualified, allowing a pair of Chinese skaters to win gold and silver – prompting accusations that the judges were biased in favour of China. In the days since, Chinese state media has given only scant coverage of the tightly contested race in one of its nearest neighbours. Last month, Xinhua reported that campaigning for the election had kicked off, citing a survey detailing the support for three of the major candidates. On Friday, it issued a short report stating that early voting for the election had begun. But little else has been said about their individual platforms, and this reticence, according to Li Nan, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is at least partly down to Chinese media being more focused on the Olympics and subsequent invasion of Ukraine by Russia. South Korea election: who’s running and what’s their China policy? It also stemmed from South Korean accusations that China was “interfering” in its elections, Li said. In January, the Chinese embassy in Seoul denied allegations that its former ambassador had tried to meddle in the coming presidential election. Qiu Guohong reportedly said at an online conference that he hoped presidential candidates “would not mention any sensitive issues related to China”, adding that bilateral ties should not be ruined by politicians’ remarks. The elections, which have been described by Li as “a watershed [moment] for South Korea’s security and diplomacy” have seen front-runners Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party advocating their respective liberal and conservative positions. But once elected, analysts said it is unlikely that the incoming president will make fundamental changes to South Korea’s policies on China or regional security – though at least one pointed to the need for Seoul to address growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the country by adopting a new approach towards Beijing. Another suggested that there might also be a window of opportunity for South Korea to improve its frayed relations with Japan . China-US ties, regional security Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a project assistant professor at Tokyo University’s Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology, said that finding the “optimum balance” between maximising South Korea’s security relationship with the US while building a cooperative relationship with China will be the main challenge facing the new president. “[While] many in South Korea do recognise the threats from China, Seoul is not yet confident about ways to effectively deal with those threats … from Beijing,” Hinata-Yamaguchi said. In recent months, Chinese boats have been spotted near Baengnyeong island off South Korea’s northwestern Gyeonggi province, amid concerns that Beijing is seeking to expand its maritime influence in the Yellow Sea. South Korea cannot afford to antagonise China when the US has not clarified how committed it is to Asian countries’ security Khang Vu, political-science doctoral student Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea Chair of the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels, said even though South Korea has said it does not want to choose sides between Washington and Beijing, its actions – including naval exercises and joint statements – point to greater collaboration with Washington. “South Korea will continue to do this no matter who wins the election, unless there is a shift in behaviour from Beijing,” said Pacheco Pardo, who is also an adjunct non-resident fellow of the Korea Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Khang Vu, a PhD candidate in political science at Boston College, said Seoul was reluctant to take on a more overt anti-China stance as it was wary of “unnecessarily provoking Chinese retaliation” – especially when the US is preoccupied with the ongoing war in Ukraine. “South Korea cannot afford to antagonise China when the US has not clarified how committed it is to Asian countries’ security against China’s rise,” Vu said, adding that an anti-China stance would also worsen inter-Korean ties. Pyongyang, which is heavily reliant on Beijing economically and diplomatically, recently condemned what it described as the US’ hostile policies towards North Korea and Washington’s diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics. Tom Corben, a foreign policy and defence research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said that THAAD – the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system that has been deployed in South Korea to defend against the North – was the “lightning rod” issue between China and South Korea. Beijing sees THAAD as mostly directed at China and has been angered by its deployment, turning to economic coercion to try to force Seoul to abandon it. Yoon has pledged to expand THAAD deployment to defend against North Korean missile threats while Lee “has been comparatively muted”, said Corben, noting that Lee is likely to continue with the current administration’s policies on sustaining amicable ties with China. “But Lee has also been characteristically blunt in identifying the need to address problems in South Korea-China relations, notably the need to crack down on illegal Chinese fishing in Korean waters,” Corben said. In recent years, Chinese boats have increasingly been accused of carrying out rampant illegal fishing in South Korean waters, which is said to have decimated local catches and damaged the environment. However, Seong-hyon Lee, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies, said whoever becomes South Korea’s next president will have to move to correct Moon Jae-in ’s current policy of appeasement towards China, noting that Beijing had underestimated the unprecedented magnitude of “anti-China rage” in its neighbour. “There is a growing segment in South Korea that is demanding that the government stand up to China’s bullying, even at the expense of economic sacrifices. This is a new phenomenon,” Lee said, adding that South Korea had tolerated Beijing’s “uncouth diplomacy” thus far because of its heavy trade dependence on China. “The anti-Chinese sentiment that has been suppressed over the years has finally erupted like a volcano and this is bound to influence South Korea’s foreign policy, regardless of who becomes the next president,” Lee said, pointing out that the public will demand the new president affirm the South Korea-US alliance, based on shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. No matter who is elected, an arms race between North and South Korea is almost a foregone conclusion Li Nan, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences China’s “tattered image in South Korea” will play a significant role in the overall foreign policy direction of the next administration, Lee predicted. In the face of North Korea’s ongoing missile tests, Li from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that while Lee has advocated both dialogue and containment while strengthening South Korea’s military, Yoon is expected to step up US-South Korea military exercises and has even proposed a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang. “No matter who is elected, an arms race between North and South Korea is almost a foregone conclusion,” Li said, adding: “If Lee is elected, inter-Korean relations will mostly remain indifferent but if Yoon is elected, ties will plummet and a new round of tensions will begin.” Japan-South Korea Analysts however see a glimmer of hope that rocky relations between South Korea and Japan might improve. Relations between the two East Asian neighbours have plunged in recent years amid economic and territorial disputes, as well as disagreements over the legacy of Japan’s wartime atrocities and compensation for wartime Korean labourers. Pacheco Pardo said that Japan was waiting for the next South Korean president to try to improve relations, “in the same way that South Korea was waiting for [former Japanese prime minister] Shinzo Abe to be gone”. He pointed to how bilateral ties plunged in 2012 after former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed Dokdo or Takeshima islands that Japan also claims. South Korea’s 2022 election could reshape its US-China balancing act “Relations then improved under Park Geun-hye, so something similar could happen this time,” added Pacheco Pardo, referring to president Moon’s predecessor. However, Corben from the University of Sydney pointed to Japan’s decision to go ahead with the nomination of a former gold mine as a Unesco World Heritage Site as evidence that prospects of improved ties “remain hostage to perennial history issues”. South Korea opposes the nomination of the site on Sado island in Niigata Prefecture, arguing that Korean workers were forced to work in the mines during World War II. “There are few domestic incentives on either side to make concessions in the interests of kick-starting a sustained effort to repair bilateral ties,” Corben said.