SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korea's main conservative party is signaling it will take a firmer stance on China, and place a bigger emphasis on human rights in its foreign policy, if it wins back the presidency in a hotly contested March election.
Though the shift would likely be welcomed by the United States, which has tried to rally its Asian allies and partners to contain China, many analysts question whether South Korean conservatives would really oversee such a dramatic change.
South Korea faces a delicate balancing act with the world's two most powerful countries. It relies on the United States, its longtime treaty ally, for protection. But it is also deeply intertwined with next-door neighbor China, its biggest trading partner.
In many important ways, Seoul has already chosen to be closer with Washington. The country's outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, has expanded South Korea's participation in several U.S.-led multilateral forums, including some that exclude or have criticized Beijing.
But notably, Moon has appeared reluctant to directly criticize China over issues such as its crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement or abuse of Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang.
Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential nominee of the conservative People Power Party (PPP), has hinted at a more direct approach.
In recent months, Yoon has indicated he would more explicitly align South Korea with the United States, appearing to reject the so-called "strategic ambiguity" Seoul has used to balance its relationship with Washington and Beijing.
"You have to lead the nation's business with strategic clarity," Yoon recently told a South Korean newspaper.
Speaking at a policy forum Monday in Seoul, Yoon called for diplomacy based on "universal values," such as liberal democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Yoon has shown a willingness to risk China's ire. He has referred to the novel coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, as the "Wuhan virus." He has also said Chinese immigration to South Korea should have been cut off early in the pandemic.
Others in Yoon's conservative party are even more forceful in their calls for South Korea to align itself against China.
In an interview with VOA, PPP chief Lee Jun-seok criticized the current South Korean government for "hesitating to say whether it will ally itself with the side of democracy or the enemies of democracy."
"We must stand in support of democratic ideals - it's a matter of essential values," said Lee.
South Koreans appear increasingly wary of China's growing strength and more combative posture.
In 2015, only 37% of South Koreans had a negative view of China, according to the Washington DC-based Pew Research Center. By 2020, that figure had more than doubled to 75%.
The turning point appears to have been 2017, when South Korea installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) U.S. missile defense system to counter North Korea. Beijing objected, since THAAD's radar can see deep into China.
In response, China waged a painful campaign of economic retaliation, which is estimated to have cost South Korea billions of dollars.
"It was when THAAD was deployed that many South Koreans began to question whether China could be a partner or a friend," said Lee, the conservative party chief. "People still remember that."
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on screen near the slogan 'The people's yearning for a better life is the goal we strive for' at the Museum of the Communist Party of China here in Beijing, China, Nov. 12, 2021.
Dependence on China
But few expect Seoul to treat Beijing as an adversary, due in large part to Chinese influence over South Korea's economy.
So far this year, China has accounted for 26% of South Korea's exports and 23% of its imports.
In a reminder of China's influence, South Korean drivers this month frantically lined up to purchase urea, an additive used in diesel vehicles to reduce emissions, after China tightened exports due to an energy shortage.
South Korea relies on China for 97% of its urea. It is just one of hundreds of products in South Korea that are sourced nearly entirely from China.
"We need to be smart," said Kim Ji-na, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "Turning China into an enemy economically could seriously undermine South Korea's national interests."
Is there really a choice?
Yoon himself rejects any notion that Beijing is an adversary. His campaign platform calls for a "new era of cooperation" based on "mutual respect" with China.
His main rival, former provincial governor Lee Jae-myung, is expected to largely continue Moon's foreign policy if he wins, though polls suggest Yoon has a slight lead.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist at King's College London, predicts if Yoon becomes president the biggest change may be that he is simply more vocal about China.
"I think there won't be much change in policy, in the sense that even under the current administration you have seen a hardening of attitudes (toward China)," Pacheco Pardo said.
As evidence, he cites South Korea's participation in this year's expanded G-7 summit, its attendance at the Quad Plus meeting on pandemic cooperation, and its expected attendance at next month's Summit of Democracies to be held virtually at the White House. South Korea also joined a U.S.-led statement calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the United States has repeatedly insisted it will not force its partners to choose between Washington and Beijing, some feel South Korea in many ways has essentially already taken a side.
"South Korea is a democracy, a market economy. Eighty percent of its people have a negative view of China. And 85-90% have a positive view of the alliance with the U.S.," Pacheco Pardo said. "So I really don't see how South Korea could make any other choice."
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.