Moscow’s global ambitions will inevitably lead it to the South China Sea, but that could force Russia to choose between partners such as China and Vietnam.

A crewman from the Vietnamese coastguard ship 8003 looks out at sea as Chinese coastguard vessels give chase to Vietnamese ships that came close to the Haiyang Shiyou 981, known in Vietnam as HD-981, oil rig in the South China Sea July 15, 2014. Photo: Reuters

It is now clear that China’s struggle to prevent the internationalization of the South China Sea dispute has been a complete and utter failure. Non-claimant states such as India and Japan, not to mention the U.S., all have their eyes on (and sometimes their hands in) the time bomb that this maritime region may prove to be.

In the meantime, Russia has once again proclaimed its own Asia-Pacific pivot as a way of compensating for the damage done to its relations with the West by the crisis in Ukraine. But why is there no Russian finger in the South China Sea pie?

One way or another, Moscow is unlikely to remain completely untouched by the territorial disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands. After all, 2015 has seen an unprecedented surge in Russia’s relations with China. With many in the West attempting to present Russia as isolated, the Kremlin sees its ties with Beijing as a manifestation of quite the contrary. In a similar fashion, China may want Moscow to help change its image of a besieged fortress.

Russia’s possible involvement in the South China Sea dispute would have been a no-brainer if another vocal claimant - Vietnam - weren’t also the country’s closest partner in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is one of the largest buyers of Russian military equipment, hosts several large investment projects and is entering a free trade area with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

As for this moment, Russia’s policy towards the territorial disputes could be described as non-existent.

The country’s Foreign Ministry usually limits itself to a standard set of neutral statements, calling for peaceful resolution of disputes, self-restraint, abiding by international law - including the 1982 United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), following the Declaration on Conduct of Parties (DOC) and soon, early conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct (COC).

While not supporting any of the legal claims seems like the reasonable thing to do, Moscow raises some eyebrows in Hanoi by failing to react in any meaningful way when any of the parties misbehaves. The Vietnamese are still disappointed about the lack of a substantial statement over the oil rig crisis in May 2014.

[China established its oil rigs in Vietnamese waters, which fueled disputes over the South China Sea. About 30 Vietnamese vessels tried to intervene, but were repelled by the eighty plus Chinese ships protecting the rig. Although the platform was scheduled to maintain its position until August 15, China withdrew it on July 16 – Editor’s note].

Probably this is why Vietnam wasn’t very elaborate in its reaction to the State Department’s requests not to allow the use of Danang airbase to refuel Russian nuclear-capable bombers this March.

At the same time, Russia continues to provide extensive military assistance to Vietnam, strengthening its capacity to repel a potential attack along the maritime borders of the country. By 2016 all of the six Kilo-class submarines will be transferred to the Vietnamese Navy and will play a central role in Hanoi’s South China Sea deterrence game.

Moreover, it was revealed recently that Vietnam bought 50 Klub surface-to-surface submarine-based cruise missiles from Russia, capable of hitting targets in China, including the Sanya naval base. All of these major purchases add to the Gepard frigates and Molniya corvettes enhancing Vietnamese maritime power.

There has not been any indication that these contracts are an issue for Russia-China relations, at least not yet. Though Vietnam would like to see more Russian engagement in its squabble with China, the Vietnamese leadership does not wish to push Moscow towards a definitive answer, because it may be not the answer they would like to hear.

It is likely that Moscow and Beijing have a gentlemen’s understanding that Ukraine for Russia and the South China Sea for China are both issues just too sensitive for the partner to have a firm position one way or the other.

Imagine what the political consequences would be for China if it were to take a firm stance of any kind on the status of Crimea. Conversely, there is no way supporting any of the territorial claims in the South China Sea can end well for Russia.

The question, then, is: What are the boundaries for Russia’s policy in the South China Sea? How far can it go and where it should go?

It seems that for Russia, as for the U.S., the focus should not be on matters of sovereignty, but rather, on matters of conduct. A world order Moscow could benefit from is one where, if there is a dispute of any sorts, the first thing the parties involved should do is to stop whatever they are doing at a point when no shots are fired and abstain from any assertive action.

This is precisely what is wrong with Ukraine and precisely what is wrong with the South China Sea. None of the parties is completely satisfied with the status quo and are continuously trying to change it, which only makes things worse and less predictable.

Perhaps this is the route for Russia to follow. Similar to Washington, Moscow may become the advocate for peaceful conduct, maintaining the status quo and, yes, that means telling China off. But unlike the U.S., Russia is not seen as a threat in Beijing, thus its motives will not be perceived as ulterior. If China can be convinced that putting the reclamation project on pause and engaging in meaningful conversation is the way to go, Moscow may well be taken as a significant contributor to Southeast Asian stability. Now wouldn’t that be a pivot to remember?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.