The Resilience of Sino-Russian High-Tech Cooperation

August 12, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a series on Sino-Russian defense cooperation organized by the Center for a New American Security. Be sure to read to the first, second, and third articles in the series.


This month, Russian security services announced the arrest of the president of the St. Petersburg Arctic Social Sciences Academy, who was accused of passing classified submarine detection information to Chinese intelligence. While Russia and China are signing joint agreements to develop high-tech research centers and initiatives, the outlook is more complex beneath the surface. As Washington reorients its strategy and posture for great-power competition, the high-tech partnership between Moscow and Beijing could be a force multiplier for both countries, if these efforts deliver on their promises.

These trends reflect the result of mutual interests and alignment of technological imperatives, which have contributed to the expansion of high-tech efforts between the two countries. There continue to be reasons for skepticism about the actual results and long-term trajectory of this evolving partnership, just as there are reasons for concern that elements of this effort may succeed. The current changes in the global innovation landscape and geopolitical environment have created an important strategic opportunity for China and Russia to counter and undercut American hegemony, including in the realm on issues of norms and global governance. As China and Russia continue to pursue such research collaborations, the United States should continue to evaluate the prospects and potential implications.

Drivers of Technological Collaboration

The strategic partnership between China and Russia has deepened in response to an alignment of interests and security concerns. The designation of both countries as great-power competitors in U.S. strategy has contributed to a great degree of collaboration, reinforcing these trends. U.S. policy has imposed economic pressures, from sanctions against Russia to the trade war with China, and technological impediments, including export controls, that create constraints and further motivation for expanded cooperation. From the Chinese government’s perspective, the strengthening of this “strategic partnership” is intended “for the sake of global stability and confidence.”



American observers have often viewed this evolving partnership with skepticism as to its potential viability. Sino-Russian relations have been complex and often contested throughout their history, replete with mistrust and a degree of resentment, especially after their Cold War split. Yet, since the post-1991 reconciliation between Moscow and Beijing, competition and confrontation with the United States has often taken precedence, especially in recent years. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “It’s mutual interest — and not money — that really counts” for China-Russia cooperation in AI.

Certainly, mutual interests matter, but so does money. China’s market and resources have outpaced Russia, while Russia has certain technical expertise that China still lacks. Their respective comparative advantages are therefore complementary. “We can use our best qualities, expanding our technological potential and competitiveness,” in the words of China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, while Putin has emphasized Russian advantages in “mathematics and everything related to it.”

An Agenda for Cooperation

2020 was already intended to be the start of a new phase of innovation cooperation, as evidenced by multiple bilateral efforts. Chinese and Russian leaders recognize emerging technologies as critical to both countries’ economic development in order to achieve a competitive advantage relative to the United States. In this moment of pandemic-initiated global economic disruption, the digital economy is seen as vital to stimulate future growth. China and Russia have been discussing key projects and developing a roadmap for the “Year of Russian-Chinese Scientific, Technical and Innovation Cooperation,” scheduled to occur in 2020 and 2021. In late December 2019, Putin signed a decree about this “year of innovation cooperation,” which was initially intended to include 800 events.

This new effort will build upon a range of prior initiatives that have included tech parks, joint ventures, and research partnerships. For instance, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang mentioned in December 2019 that plans for future cooperation would include information and communication tech, as well as AI and the “Internet of Things.” To underscore this cooperation, in June 2020, China’s ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, remarked that for this initiative, both countries will strengthen scientific and technical cooperation in public health and biosafety, emphasizing developments in big data, AI, and cloud computing. While the novel coronavirus pandemic has disrupted what was intended to be an ambitious agenda, these activities have adapted and may be further adjusted.

Beyond this agenda, the degree to which this partnership will mature remains to be seen. To date, cooperation has been guided primarily by regular meetings and engagement between China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Russia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which have sought to identify priorities and facilitate the linkage of projects. Cooperation between the Chinese and Russian Academies of Sciences, including in biotechnology and neuroscience, is an important element of this partnership. For this year of innovation cooperation, their joint activities involve bilateral academic seminars that will address topics such as space optics and ongoing science and technology exchanges. There has also been Chinese participation in the heavy ion superconducting synchrotron project in Russia, which has relevance to advances in the basic science and potential medical applications.

Chinese companies have also expanded their activities within Russia, especially Chinese technology behemoth Huawei. For instance, in March 2020, Huawei opened a research lab specializing in AI at Russia’s Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, which will offer young Russian scientists paid internships. In early 2020, Huawei also announced its plans to open the Huawei Academy of Information and Communication Technologies at Russia’s Kabardino-Balkarian State University. In fact, this company is the most visible and committed foreign investor in Russia’s developing AI ecosystem. In June 2020, Huawei pledged to help develop this ecosystem via three pathways: by strengthening cooperation with Russian partners in developing joint AI innovations based on the Huawei OpenLab innovation laboratory in Moscow, training Russian developers based on the global Ascend Developer Community, and developing academic AI technology courses, while expanding its circle of Russian universities where this training will be carried out. This is one of many efforts by the Chinese company to take advantage of Russian universities’ desire to develop world-class programs and research.

Progress and Results

The future of Sino-Russian scientific and technological cooperation is full of promise, or at least that is what senior officials from both countries claim in their portrayals of the partnership. There are already examples of apparent successes, such as the joint development of a fast-neutron reactor and collaboration on a wide-body long-range jet. At the same time, joint research and co-authorship between China and Russia has taken time to mature, largely due to practical obstacles, such as language barriers. By contrast, there has been greater integration and more extensive collaboration between American and Chinese technological ecosystems, yet that engagement is at risk of disruption due to the security debate over Huawei’s role in the United States.

While China and Russia still have access to other options and opportunities for research collaboration, their focus nonetheless has shifted towards creating joint platforms to combine capabilities and to facilitate the transfer and sharing of technologies. For example, in April 2020, the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the National Natural Science Foundation of China initiated a joint competition for the best fundamental research projects in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, among other disciplines.

Certain aspects of Sino-Russian technological collaboration will likely possess dual-use applications. For example, according to one licensing project run by the Russian Ministry of Defense-managed ERA Techno City, “the [initiative] will involve the use of monitoring ongoing research and development in foreign countries in order to identify advanced technical solutions that can be applied in the development of weapons and special equipment.” In that particular case, there is special Ministry of Defense interest in Chinese-made electronics components with potential military and security applications.

For China and Russia, aviation and aerospace are promising avenues for joint development. During the Sino-Russian Engineering Technology Forum, convened in Xiamen in November 2019, agreements were signed for 15 projects, involving total investment of nearly $1.1 billion, including in the fields of aviation and aerospace. The forum itself covered topics that included space debris mitigation, lunar exploration, and unmanned aerial vehicles technologies and applications.

Impediments and Imbalances

Not all aspects of technological engagements between China and Russia have been positive. The glowing accounts of Sino-Russian technology partnerships in official statements are belied by issues of intellectual property theft, fraud, and corruption. In October 2019, the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces was accused of supplying Chinese equipment to his military, swapping out Chinese labels for Russian ones to claim they were made in Russia, according to an ongoing investigation. As a result, charges of fraud were brought against the head of the technical acquisition department tasked with improving the Russian Armed Forces’ command-and-control system. And the June 2020 spying incident involving Chinese intelligence actors and one of Russia’s top Arctic scientists could potentially complicate future cooperation in the Arctic. While the effect of these incidents is difficult to estimate, such episodes may complicate and undermine cooperation.

Certain fundamental asymmetries between China and Russia may also constrain their partnership in the long term. In particular, Chinese investments in scientific and technological developments dwarf what Russia is able to dedicate to similar efforts. From a Russian perspective, this dynamic increases the importance of cooperation with China. Speaking in November 2019, the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexander Sergeev, indicated that cooperation should be organized to ensure both sides “be equal participants in research.” He described the Russian contribution to the partnership as “the scientific intelligence and creativity, interesting ideas for setting up and interpreting experiments.” Presently, Russian scientists are seeking to improve their capacity to commercialize scientific knowledge, including maintaining control of intellectual property, learning from China’s approach.

Whereas the Soviet Union rendered important contributions to the initial development of science in China, today’s dynamic is reversed, as China becomes an important contributor to the future of science in Russia, which now has less to offer China. Despite the potential benefits of Russian “scientific and methodological” guidance, this reversal could undermine the partnership’s equality and balance in ways that could raise issues of pride or even a degree of resentment, as Russia seeks to leverage complementarities without becoming too much the junior and lesser partner. Increasingly, Russian officials are sounding the alarm at the growing gap in AI research and development that developed between Russia and China. For instance, German Klimenko, co-chairman of Russia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, recently reflected,

Previously, the Chinese visited us and studied, analyzed our developments in AI. There were discussions [in Russia] about how to stay in this leadership position. Now we are talking about the fact that we are either in the twenty, or even among the 60 leading countries [developing AI] in this field. How did it happen with our great potential?

This concern is echoed by other official statistics: As of late 2019, Russia generated 38 times fewer scientific patents than China and 16 times fewer than the United States. Russia itself recognizes that the “low level of attractiveness of Russian science as a field is due to the lack of an effective system for stimulating scientific and scientific-technical activity in the country.” Meanwhile, beyond this partnership, China has also prioritized expanding scientific collaboration pursuant to its Belt and Road Initiative, particularly with European countries, diversifying options for gaining access to foreign technologies.

Not lost on Moscow is the scale of China’s big investments in Russian high-tech industry. In June 2020, Huawei indicated that despite the ongoing global pandemic, it is still ready to offer the Russian information and communications market its own unique technological capabilities, the development of joint hardware and software solutions with Russian suppliers, as well as the organization of joint production. The Chinese behemoth will also continue to invest in local Russian research and development, develop a partner ecosystem and educational programs, thereby claiming to render a significant and lasting contribution to the development of the Russian high-tech industry. Despite Russian willingness to accept such generous investment, Moscow can’t offer a compatible investment effort into China at this point, making this growing high-tech relationship highly lopsided in Beijing’s favor. If the current trends hold, China could be in a more favorable position in continuing its quest to become a nation at the epicenter of global innovation, including leveraging a range of scientific and technological partnerships worldwide, especially under the aegis of the One Belt, One Road initiative.

Conclusions and Implications

In the years to come, Chinese and Russian scientific and technological cooperation will likely continue to deepen and progress. However, the actual results and efficacy of this partnership remain to be seen and could be undermined by divergences in priorities and perspectives. Ultimately, this “comprehensive strategic cooperation and partnership” is not a true alliance, but rather influenced by mutual concerns and benefits that are contingent upon present circumstances and geopolitics. This distinction of “partners, not allies” will continually influence future bilateral relations between China and Russia, even as geopolitical alignment remains a powerful impetus to deepen their partnership for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, for the United States, and for its allies and partners, a closer Russian-Chinese partnership could threaten national interests and security. U.S. attempts to isolate and constrain the progress of China and Russia in dual-use and military-relevant technologies, through measures such as export controls and sanctions, could be undermined by this partnership. This trend of authoritarian innovation has involved parallels in the use of emerging technologies, such as AI, for purposes of coercion and censorship. These developments also raise urgent concerns about the impact of today’s technological transformations on the future trajectories of democratic and authoritarian governance respectively. Of unique concern going forward is that governments in traditionally open, democratic societies are starting to implement technologies and practices for tracking and monitoring populations in an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic — tactics that used to be more unique to China.

At the same time, China and Russia have sought to sustain and explore options to continue scientific cooperation with the United States. There has even been overt messaging from the Russian government on the benefits of bilateral scientific cooperation as a potential facilitator for improved U.S.-Russian relations and possible counterbalance to Russia’s growing dependence on China. As then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev articulated in October 2019,

I would be lying if I said that [scientific cooperation] would destroy sanctions, break the wall of misunderstanding, and we will communicate easily and naturally [with the Americans]. This will not happen. But there is no doubt that science can contribute to this process.

Despite the backdrop of U.S.-Chinese friction on trade and tech issues, Beijing has continued to declare and signal its openness to scientific collaboration. At least for the time being, the United States remains the primary center of gravity, even in a world in which innovation is globalized and increasingly international in character.

Going forward, the U.S. government should continue to monitor these trends and create better metrics to analyze the Sino-Russian high-tech partnership. For instance, improvements in open-source intelligence should be re-evaluated, including the revision to decommission the Open Source Enterprise in June 2019. The United States should continue to adapt mechanisms to improve the protection of American technologies and innovation, including through introducing and adapting safeguards, such as export controls and best practices on screening for research partnerships, to mitigate the risks of intellectual property theft or exploitation of openness in science and technology.

As today’s strategic competition is systemic in character, the U.S. government and the American high-tech ecosystem should promulgate norms and ethical frameworks that are consistent with liberal values and democratic governance to provide guidance for the development and employment of today’s emerging tech. The United States, along with allies, partners, and concerned democracies worldwide, should mount a more coordinated response to Russian and Chinese promotion of alternative frameworks for technology governance on the world stage, which also demands progress on norms at home. Ultimately, Sino-Russian high-tech cooperation may prove resilient, but reasons remain for skepticism that both countries will manage to deliver on their extensive agendas. At the same time, the U.S. government should explore options for limited and carefully calibrated scientific collaboration with both China and Russia. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States pursued scientific exchanges and cooperation with the Soviet Union, recognizing the potential impact of such “science diplomacy.” Today, there may be benefits for American diplomacy to include limited scientific engagement with China and Russia on subjects of mutual interest and concern, such as global public health.



Samuel Bendett is an analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russia Studies program. He is also an adjunct senior fellow with the Technology and National Security program at the Center for a New American Security.

Elsa Kania is an adjunct senior fellow with the Technology and National Security program at the Center for a New American Security. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard University’s Department of Government. 

Image: President of Russia