Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 12, 2021
Tech-tonic shift in Sino-Russian cooperation This is the 113th article in the series The China Chronicles. Read the articles here.

Technological cooperation has increasingly gained significance in the Russia-China bilateral relationship, with 2020-21 being marked as the ‘Year of Scientific, Technical and Innovation Cooperation’. This was decided during the summit meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in 2019, with the Russian leader describing it as one of the ‘most promising areas of cooperation’ for the two countries.

Russia-China engagement in the military-technical field has ‘strategic importance’ for both parties, with bilateral cooperation on the upswing since 2010. This has gained momentum in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, with Russia shedding its earlier reluctance to sell latest technology to China, signing deals for supply of Su-35 fighter jets and the S-400 missile defence system. The two sides are also engaged in joint projects, and Russia has agreed to help China develop its ballistic missile early-warning system. In fact, the latter development has been interpreted as a sign of increasing closeness between the two countries, which while not an alliance, does signal deepening engagement.

Another traditional area of cooperation has been space, where in 2019 the two countries declared their intention to jointly build an International Scientific Lunar Station. The two sides have agreed to cooperate in peaceful use of GLONASS and BeiDou navigation, in order to promote interoperability of the two systems. Several scientific projects are ongoing, which has been supplemented by a common position on issues like the US-led Artemis Accords that seeks to build principles for space exploration and potential utilisation of resources. Russia and China have opposed the agreement, labelling the move as creating a ‘US-led space order’ that also brings in private players.

Apart from these traditional bilateral engagements, Russia-China cooperation has now expanded to include Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, 5G, robotics, digital economy, biotechnology, and Information and Communications Technology (ICT). These form a particular focus of the ongoing Year of Russian-Chinese Scientific, Technical and Innovation Cooperation. The process is being facilitated by initiatives including setting up of science and technology parks, Russia-China high-tech forum, Russia-China Venture Fund, Russia-China Innovation Dialogue, and Russia-China Joint Innovation Investment Fund, besides increased academic exchanges.

While some cooperation in high technology had been ongoing since the early years of the 21st century, the partnership remained small-scale, ‘not systematic and lacked depth.’ This began to change in recent years as both Russia and China witnessed a downturn in relations with the West, which also restricted their access to Western technology. The aim now is to move beyond ‘basic scientific research’ and towards ‘applied research and industrialisation,’ with the participation of the Chinese private sector and a focus on ‘digital technologies.’ The partners seek to benefit from strengths the two sides possess: ‘China’s industrial applications and Russian basic research and talent.’

Here, AI has emerged as a leading area of cooperation, which possesses high potential for development of dual-use technology. China is today a world leader in AI, whether it comes to investment, patents, number of AI companies, number of specialists or even market size. On all of these parameters, Russia remains behind China, but continues to produce high-quality research, which has prompted the ongoing collaboration, with other areas like robotics and e-commerce also gaining ground.

The Russian and Chinese Academy of Sciences have come together to work on biotechnology and neuroscience. Chinese companies like Alibaba have also been active in the Russian scene in recent years, focusing on collaboration with local companies as well as investment in Russian talent. Huawei has been particularly active in this regard, accomplishing this through partnerships with ‘universities, research institutes and companies.’ It has been reported that Russian engineers have helped in the development of Huawei’s operating system and the Chinese company is also looking to collaborate with prominent Russian entities like Yandex, Kaspersky, Sberbank and In the case of 5G, Huawei has partnered with Russia’s MTS, launching its testing in Moscow in 2019, weeks after Ericsson established a pilot zone in central Moscow. This is in marked contrast to other countries like the US, Australia, India, Sweden, and the UK that have excluded the Chinese company from their 5G networks.

Huawei’s presence has accelerated in the aftermath of it being included in the US Entity List in 2019 that restricts the ability of the company to engage with American companies, leading the company to shift its investments to Russia. This process has also gained from the support of the two governments towards increased cooperation in next generation technology.

In both the military and commercial sectors, there are some obvious advantages to the two countries coming together as demonstrated above, especially as the two countries face deteriorating relations with the West. Apart from technological development, Moscow and Beijing also benefit from each other’s support at multilateral forums to advance their views on the critical issue of establishing norms in the field of next generation technologies. Given their increasingly closer joint technological cooperation in areas of common interest, it has been argued that the relationship is no longer solely based on their respective disagreements with the West.

But despite the advantages, concerns about various aspects of this increased bonhomie between the two countries exist. With Huawei acquiring the Russian start-up Vocord’s ‘video surveillance and facial recognition technology patents,’ apprehension over the possible ‘authoritarian’ use of this technology has also been raised, instead of specific law enforcement purposes.

For the Russian side, concerns raised include China emerging as a competitor to Russian defence exports, the impact the entry of bigger Chinese companies will have on Russian technology companies and theft of intellectual property. There is also the issue of ‘distrust,’ as seen in the case of the arrest of a senior Russian Arctic researcher on charges of spying for China. China has also dramatically improved its capacity in new technologies, especially AI, leading to worries in Russia about the ‘growing gap’ between the two sides. As Chinese companies compete at the global level, Russia remains a smaller market with limited investment. This has raised fears of the former becoming a dominant player and no longer considering the latter as ‘an equal partner.’ Specifically in the case of Huawei, there are worries about Russia becoming over-dependent, which could have longer term security implications, with some suggesting that Moscow must develop its own 5G technology.

But, at present, both Russia and China see the benefits as outweighing the risks in cooperating with each other and have not let the above mentioned concerns hinder ongoing projects. This has also been bolstered by their coming together at the multilateral level on issues like information security, cyber sovereignty and state control over the internet.

Russia has been worried about foreign technology being used for ‘espionage and cyber operations,’ especially as the release of the US National Cyber Security Strategy in 2018 gave more power to US agencies to take an offensive approach in cyberspace. The US has accused Russia of interference in the 2016 presidential elections as well as other cyberattacks. This has also been cited as one of the reasons in 2019 of the passing of the sovereign internet law in Russia, to enable the creation of a system to cut off the country’s internet from the rest of the world in case of an emergency. It seeks to increase state control over internet infrastructure, and create a ‘parallel’ Russian internet, which has led experts to foresee a closer cooperation with China to ‘develop the technology.’

Already, the use of other parts of the law to block websites or slow down the speed of specific entities is underway, through the use of deep packet inspection to filter content. While the Kremlin claims the focus is on removing harmful content from popular websites, the slowing down of Twitter in 2021 and suspected disruption of mobile services during 2019 protests has led to concerns about freedom of speech. Some have interpreted this as Russia coming closer to China’s approach in terms of ‘information control,’ even though its ability to exercise a Beijing level of control on the internet remains limited on the technical level.

In 2016, the two sides issued a joint statement on cooperation in information space development, calling for upholding national sovereignty in the information space, resisting interference in internal affairs through the information space, joint R&D in ICT, and taking the initiative for a multilateral internet governance system. In 2019, Russia and China agreed to combat illegal internet content, which has also led to worries about internet freedom. These developments have acquired more significance due to the willingness of Russia and China to cooperate at the international level on internet governance, surveillance and cyber sovereignty. They also work together at the UN to advance their vision of state behaviour in cyberspace.

Taken together, it is believed that Russia-China scientific and technological cooperation will continue at least in the short-term, driven by common goals and mutual benefits accrued through collaborative work. While Russia does seek to avoid an ‘asymmetrical dependence’ on China, in the light of steady deterioration of relations with the West and domestic limitations, it remains to be seen if it is able to accomplish this goal in the technological domain.

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Nivedita Kapoor

Nivedita Kapoor

Nivedita Kapoor is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs ...

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