These are awkward and challenging times for the people of South Korea as they look to navigate their long term relationships with both the US and China. The Korean Peninsula shares its borders with China, with only North Korea as a buffer, and the South Korean economy (which is only one-third of the size of Japan’s) is heavily dependent on China for trade and exports (China accounted for nearly 26% of South Korea’s exports last year). In his last year in office before facing voters in next year’s election, President Moon Jae-in has his work cut out to maintain the ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ he has so far managed in his dealings with the strong personalities of four attention-seeking Presidents: Xi Jinping, Kim Jung-un, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden.

Making life even more difficult for President Moon is the deteriorating sentiment towards China amongst local South Korean voters. According to recent research, 75% of South Koreans have a negative view on China (significantly up from 31% in 2002) due, amongst other things, to the severe economic impact felt from China’s response to the THAAD missile defense system installed on their soil by the United States in 2016 to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea. South Korea suffered at least $7.5 billion of economic losses as a result of Chinese sanctions imposed on Korean products, causing the Government to prioritise good diplomatic relations with Beijing, avoiding attempts to publicly criticise China on human rights issues and other grievances, and resisting pressure from the US to join western military and intelligence alliances. Not surprisingly, conservative politicians and right wing media in South Korea are calling for a new and more assertive approach which will be tested in the polls in March next year.

Who would want to be the democratically-elected leader of a medium-sized country in Asia who understands the critical importance of good relations with China to deliver economic prosperity for their citizens but also wants to support western democracies in standing up to China’s assertiveness. Attitudes towards China are hardening everywhere and those who sit on the fence risk isolation and rejection. South Korea is very vulnerable to this, especially in competitive industries like semiconductors and batteries where they face stiff competition, notably from neighbouring Taiwan and Japan. The result of the 2022 Presidential Election in South Korea will be an early indication of how voters in Asian democracies are likely to place their own economic prosperity and wealth above (or below) ideological principles and personal freedoms. Everyone else will be watching.

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