6 November 2019

A new Sino-Russian high-tech partnership

Samuel Bendett 

Authoritarian innovation in an era of great-power rivalry

What’s the problem?

Sino-Russian relations have been adapting to an era of great-power rivalry. This complex relationship, categorised as a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era’, has continued to evolve as global strategic competition has intensified.1 China and Russia have not only expanded military cooperation but are also undertaking more extensive technological cooperation, including in fifth-generation telecommunications, artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology and the digital economy.

When Russia and China commemorated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in October 2019,2 the celebrations highlighted the history of this ‘friendship’ and a positive agenda for contemporary partnership that is pursuing bilateral security, ‘the spirit of innovation’, and ‘cooperation in all areas’.3

Such partnerships show that Beijing and Moscow recognise the potential synergies of joining forces in the development of these dual-use technologies, which possess clear military and commercial significance. This distinct deepening of China–Russia technological collaborations is also a response to increased pressures imposed by the US. Over the past couple of years, US policy has sought to limit Chinese and Russian engagements with the global technological ecosystem, including through sanctions and export controls. Under these geopolitical circumstances, the determination of Chinese and Russian leaders to develop indigenous replacements for foreign, particularly American technologies, from chips to operating systems, has provided further motivation for cooperation.

These advances in authoritarian innovation should provoke concerns for democracies for reasons of security, human rights, and overall competitiveness. Notably, the Chinese and Russian governments are also cooperating on techniques for improved censorship and surveillance and increasingly coordinating on approaches to governance that justify and promote their preferred approach of cyber sovereignty and internet management, to other countries and through international standards and other institutions. Today’s trends in technological collaboration and competition also possess strategic and ideological implications for great-power rivalry.

What’s the solution?

This paper is intended to start an initial mapping and exploration of the expanding cooperative ecosystem involving Moscow and Beijing.4 It will be important to track the trajectory and assess the implications of these Sino-Russian technological collaborations, given the risks and threats that could result from those advances. In a world of globalised innovation, the diffusion of even the most sensitive and strategic technologies, particularly those that are dual-use in nature and driven by commercial developments, will remain inherently challenging to constrain but essential to understand and anticipate.

To avoid strategic surprise, it’s important to assess and anticipate these technological advancements by potential adversaries. Like-minded democracies that are concerned about the capabilities of these authoritarian regimes should monitor and evaluate the potential implications of these continuing developments.

The US and Australia, along with allies and partners, should monitor and mitigate tech transfer and collaborative research activities that can involve intellectual property (IP) theft and extra-legal activities, including through expanding information-sharing mechanisms. This collaboration should include coordinating on export controls, screening of investments, and restrictions against collaboration with military-linked or otherwise problematic institutions in China and Russia.

It’s critical to continue to deepen cooperation and coordination on policy responses to the challenges and opportunities that emerging technologies present. For instance, improvements in sharing data among allies and partners within and beyond the Five Eyes nations could be conducive to advancing the future development of AI in a manner that’s consistent with our ethics and values.

Today, like-minded democracies must recognise the threats from advances in and the diffusion of technologies that can be used to empower autocratic regimes. For that reason, it will be vital to mount a more unified response to promulgate norms for the use of next-generation technologies, particularly AI and biotech.

Background: Cold War antecedents to contemporary military-technological cooperation

The history of Sino-Russian technological cooperation can be traced back to the early years of the Cold War. The large-scale assistance provided by the Soviet Union to China in the 1950s involved supplying equipment, technology and expertise for Chinese enterprises, including thousands of highly qualified Soviet specialists working across China.5 Sino-Russian scientific and technical cooperation, ranging from the education of Chinese students in the Soviet Union to joint research and the transfer of scientific information, contributed to China’s development of its own industrial, scientific and technical foundations. Initially, China’s defence industry benefited greatly from the availability of Soviet technology and armaments, which were later reverse-engineered and indigenised. The Sino-Soviet split that started in the late 1950s and lasted through the 1970s interrupted those efforts, which didn’t resume at scale until after the end of the Cold War.6

Russia’s arms sales to China have since recovered to high levels, and China remains fairly reliant upon certain Russian defense technologies. This is exemplified by China’s recent acquisition of the S-400 advanced air defence system,7 for which China’s Central Military Commission Equipment Development Department was sanctioned by the US.8 Traditionally, China has also looked to Russia for access to aero-engines.9 Today, China’s tech sector and defence industry have surpassed Russia in certain sectors and technologies. For instance, China has developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are far more advanced than those currently operational in Russia.10 Nonetheless, the Russian military has been unwilling to acquire Chinese UAVs, instead deciding to attempt to develop indigenous counterparts in mid-range and heavy unmanned combat models.11 Nonetheless, for Russia, nearto mid-term access to certain Chinese products, services and experience may become the very lifeline that Russia’s industry, government and military will require in order to wean themselves off high-tech imports12, although even that approach may be challenged by limited availability of Chinese components.13

Underscoring the apparent strength of this evolving relationship, China and Russia have recently elevated their military-to-military relationship. In September 2019, the Russian and Chinese defence ministers agreed to sign official documents to jointly pursue military and military–technical cooperation.14 According to the Russian Defence Minister, ‘the results of the [bilateral] meeting will serve the further development of a comprehensive strategic partnership between Russia and China.’15

Reportedly, Russia plans to aid China in developing a missile defense warning system, according to remarks by President Putin in October 2019.16 At the moment, only the United States and Russian Federation have fully operationalized such technology, and according to Moscow, sharing this technology with Beijing could ‘cardinally increase China’s defense capability’.17 For China, access to Russian lessons learned in new conflicts such as Syria may prove extremely valuable as Beijing digests key data and lessons.18 Of course, this technological cooperation has also extended into joint exercises, including joint air patrols and naval drills.19

A strategic partnership for technological advancement

The strategic partnership between China and Russia has increasingly concentrated on technology and innovation.20 Starting with the state visit of Xi Jinping to Moscow in May 2015, in particular, the Chinese and Russian governments have signed a series of new agreements that concentrate on expanding into new realms of cooperation, including the digital economy.21 In June 2016, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development signed the ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Launching Cooperation in the Domain of Innovation’.22 With the elevation of the China–Russia relationship as a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era’, the notion of these nations as being linked in a ‘science and technology cooperation partnership for shared innovation’ (作共同创新的科技合作伙伴) has been elevated as one of the major pillars of this relationship.23

To some degree, this designation has been primarily rhetorical and symbolic, but it has also corresponded with progress and greater substance over time. The Chinese and Russian governments have launched a number of new forums and mechanisms that are intended to promote deeper collaboration, including fostering joint projects and partnerships among companies. Over time, the Sino-Russian partnership has become more and more institutionalised.24 This policy support for collaboration in innovation has manifested in active initiatives that are just starting to take shape.

This section outlines five areas where the Sino-Russian relationship is deepening, including in dialogues and exchanges, the development of industrial science and technology (S&T) parks, and the expansion of academic cooperation.
Dialogues and exchanges

Concurrently, a growing number of dialogues between Chinese and Russian governments and departments have attempted to promote exchanges and partnerships, and those engagements have also become particularly prominent since 2016. While the initiatives listed below remain relatively nascent, these new mechanisms constitute a network of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) cooperation that could continue to expand in the years to come and provide the two countries with new vehicles for engagement and information sharing across their respective scientific communities.

Starting in 2016, the Russian–Chinese High-Tech Forum has been convened annually. During the 2017 forum, both sides worked on the creation of direct and open dialogue between tech investors of Russia and China, as well as on the expansion and diversification of cooperation in the field of innovations and high technologies.25 During the 2018 forum, proposed initiatives for expanded cooperation included the introduction of new information technologies. This forum wasn’t merely a symbolic indication of interest in cooperation but appeared to produce concrete results, including the signing of a number of bilateral agreements.26 In particular, the Novosibirsk State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering signed an agreement with Chinese partners on the development of technologies for construction and operation in cold conditions.27 The specific projects featured included China’s accession to the Russian project of a synchrotron accelerator.28
Beginning in 2017, the Sino-Russian Innovation Dialogue has been convened annually by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development.29 In the first dialogue, in Beijing, more than 100 Chinese and Russian enterprises participated, from industries that included biomedicine, nanotechnology, new materials, robotics, drones and AI, showcasing their innovative technologies and concluding new agreements for cooperation. During the second dialogue, in Moscow, the Russian and Chinese governments determined the 2019–2024 China–Russia Innovation Cooperation Work Plan.30 Each country regards the plan as an opportunity for its own development, as it combines the advantages of China’s industry, capital and market with the resources, technology and talents of Russia.31 Contemporaneously, forums have been convened in parallel on ‘Investing in Innovations’ and have brought together prominent investors and entrepreneurs.32 When the third dialogue was convened in Shanghai in September 2019, the agenda included a competition in innovation and entrepreneurship, a forum on investment cooperation and a meeting for ‘matchmaking’ projects and investments.33 The 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations will also be commemorated with the Sino-Russian Innovation Cooperation Week.34

Science and technology parks

The establishment of a growing number of Sino-Russian S&T parks has been among the most tangible manifestations of growing cooperation. Moscow and Beijing believe that scientific and industrial parks can create a foundation and an infrastructure that’s critical to sustained bilateral cooperation. Since so many of these efforts remain relatively nascent, it’s too early to gauge their success—yet the growing number of such efforts reflects growing bilateral cooperation.

As early as 2006, the Changchun Sino-Russian Science and Technology Park was established as a base for S&T cooperation and innovation. It was founded by the Jilin Provincial Government and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in cooperation with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Siberian Branch and the Novosibirsk state of the Russian Federation.35 The park has specialised in creating new opportunities for collaboration and for the transfer and commercialisation of research and technology.36 Over more than a decade, it has built an ‘innovation team’ composed of colleges and universities, scientific research institutions and private enterprises.37

In June 2016, the plan for the China–Russia Innovation Park was inaugurated with support from the Shaanxi Provincial Government, the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Sino-Russian Investment Fund. The park was completed in 2018, with information technology, biomedical and artificial intelligence enterprises invited to take part. According to the development plan, the park aims at research and development of new technologies and the integration of new tech with the social infrastructure of both countries.38

Also in June 2016, the Sino-Russian Investment Fund and the Skolkovo Foundation signed an agreement to build a medical robot centre and to manufacture medical robots in China with support from experts at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ School of Design and Technology.39 The state-funded Skolkovo initiative, launched in 2010, is Russia’s leading technology innovation space. The foundation manages many high-tech projects that include deep machine learning and neural network techniques.40

In June 2016, the China–Russia Silk Road Innovation Park was established in the Xixian New District of Xian.41 This initiative is framed as an opportunity to construct a modern industrial system as the main line of development, ‘striv[ing] to create an innovation and entrepreneurship centre with the highest degree of openness and the best development environment in the Silk Road Economic Belt’. This park welcomes entrepreneurs from China and Russia.

In December 2017, S&T parks from China and Russia agreed to promote the construction of a Sino-Russian high-tech centre at Skolkovo, which aims to become Russia’s Silicon Valley.42 The Skolkovo Foundation, which manages the site, agreed to provide the land, while Tus-Holdings Co Ltd and the Russia–China Investment Fund will jointly finance the project. This high-tech centre is intended to serve as a platform to promote new start-ups, including by attracting promising Chinese companies.

In October 2018, the Chinese city of Harbin also emerged as a major centre for Sino-Russian technological cooperation.43 This initiative is co-founded by GEMMA, which is an international economic cooperation organisation registered in Russia, and the Harbin Ministry of Science and Technology.44 At present, 19 companies are resident in the centre, which is expected to expand and receive robust support from the local government. Harbin’s Nangan District has expressed interest in cooperation with Russian research institutes in the field of AI.45

The cities of Harbin and Shenzhen have been selected for a new ‘Two Countries, Four Cities’ program, which is intended to unite the potentials of Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Harbin and Shenzhen.46 As of 2019, there are plans for the opening of another Russian innovation centre in the city of Shenzhen—a high-tech park that will concentrate on information technology47—enabling resident companies to enter the China market with their own software and technologies, such as big data and automation systems for mining.48

Joint funds

China and Russia are also increasing investments into special funds for research on advanced technology development.

The Russia–China Investment Fund for Regional Development signed on as an anchor investor in two new funds at Skolkovo Ventures to the tune of US$300 million in October 2018.49 This fund will also pour money into Skolkovo’s funds for emerging companies in information technology, which each currently have US$50 million in capital.50

The Russia–China Science and Technology Fund was established as a partnership between Russia’s ‘Leader’ management company and Shenzhen Innovation Investment Group to invest as much as 100 million yuan (about US$14 million) into Russian companies looking to enter the China market.51

The Chinese and Russian governments have been negotiating to establish the Sino-Russian Joint Innovation Investment Fund.52 In July 2019, the fund was officially established, with the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the China Investment Corporation financing the $1 billion project.53

Contests and competitions

Engagement between the Chinese and Russian S&T sectors has also been promoted through recent contests and competitions that have convened and displayed projects with the aim of facilitating cooperation.

In September 2018, the first China–Russia Industry Innovation Competition was convened in Xixian New District.54 The competition focused on the theme of ‘Innovation Drives the Future’, highlighting big data, AI and high-end manufacturing.55 The projects that competed included a flying robot project from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a brain-controlled rehabilitation robot based on virtual reality and functional electrical stimulation.

In April 2019, the Roscongress Foundation together with VEB Innovations and the Skolkovo Foundation launched the second round of the EAST BOUND contest, which gives Russian start-ups an opportunity to tell foreign investors about their projects. This time, the contest will support AI developments.56 The finalists spoke at SPIEF–2019 (the St Petersburg International Economic Forum) and presented their projects to a high-profile jury consisting of major investors from the Asia–Pacific region.57

Expansion of academic cooperation

In July 2018, the Russian and Chinese academies of sciences signed a road-map agreement to work on six projects.58 The agreement joins together some of the largest academic and research institutions around the world and includes commitments to expand research collaboration and pursue personnel exchanges. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has more than 67,900 scientists engaged in research activities,59 while the Russian Academy of Sciences includes 550 scientific institutions and research centres across the country employing more than 55,000 scientists.60

These projects include a concentration on brain functions that will include elements of AI.61 The Russian side is motivated by the fact that China occupies a world-leading position in the field of neuroscience,62 including through the launch of the China Brain Project.63 The Russian Academy of Sciences delegation visited laboratories in Shanghai in August 2019 and commented on their counterpart academy’s achievements:

Brain research is a whole range of tasks, starting with genetics and ending with psychophysical functions. This includes the study of neurodegenerative diseases and the creation of artificial intelligence systems based on neuromorphic intelligence. Participation in this project is very important for Russia. China is investing a lot in this and has become a world leader in some areas ...64

Priorities for partnership

Chinese–Russian technological cooperation extends across a range of industries, and the degree of engagement and productivity varies across industries and disciplines. As Sino-Russian relations enter this ‘new era’, sectors that have been highly prioritised include, but are not limited to, telecommunications; robotics and AI; biotechnology; new media; and the digital economy.

Next-generation telecommunications

The ongoing feud between the US and China over the Huawei mobile giant has contributed to unexpectedly rapid counterbalancing cooperation between Russia and China. In fact, President Vladimir Putin went on the record about this issue, calling the American pressure on the Chinese company the ‘first technological war of the coming digital age’.65 Encountering greater pressure globally, and this year in particular, Huawei has expanded its engagement with Russia, looking to leverage its STEM expertise through engaging with Russian academia. Since 2018, Huawei has opened centres first in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kazan and then in Novosibirsk and Nizhny Novgorod.66

Huawei also began monitoring the research capabilities of Russian universities, searching for potential joint projects, and in August 2019 the company signed a cooperation agreement on AI with Russia’s National Technology Initiative, which is a state-run program to promote high-tech development in the country.67 Based on a competition run by the Huawei Academy and Huawei Cloud, Russia’s best academic STEM institutions were selected.68 In May 2019, Huawei and the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences outlined areas and means of future cooperation.69

Underscoring its bullishness, China recently announced plans for a fourfold increase in its R&D staff in Russia going forward. In May 2019, the Huawei Innovation Research Program in Russia was launched, and Russian institutions have received 140 technological requests from Huawei in various areas of scientific cooperation.70 By the end of 2019, the company intends to hire 500 people, and within five years it will attract more than 1,000 new specialists.71 Huawei now has two local R&D centres in Moscow and St Petersburg, where 400 and 150 people work, respectively.72 By the end of the year, it plans to open three new R&D centres, and Russia will then be ranked among the top three Huawei R&D centres, after Europe and North America.73 The company plans to engage in close cooperation with Russian scientific communities, universities and other research centres.

At present, Russia doesn’t appear to share deep American concerns about security related to Huawei technology.74 Huawei has started actively expanding its 5G testing in the Russian Federation, partnering with Russia’s Vimplecom to test a 5G pilot area in downtown Moscow starting in August 2019.75 Commentators have stated that Russia, which isn’t considered a technological leader, has ‘the potential to get ahead globally’ now that it has Chinese high-tech enterprises as allies.76 During the summer of 2019 at SPIEF, Huawei continued to discuss with Skolkovo plans to develop 5G network technology at the innovation centre, and also to do research in AI and internet of things (IoT) projects.77

In fact, at that forum, Russia and China outlined a large-scale cooperation program in order to prepare a road map for future investment and cooperation on issues such as cybersecurity and the IoT.78 As US pressure on Huawei continues, there’s even a possibility that the Chinese company might abandon the Android operating system (OS) altogether and replace it with the Russian Avrora OS.79 If this transaction goes through, it would be the first time that a Russian OS has contributed to a significant global telecoms player.

Whether Huawei can become a trusted name in Russia’s tech sector and defence industries remains to be seen. There are also reasons to question whether Russia truly trusts the security of Huawei’s systems, but it may be forced to rely upon them, absent better options. As an illustration of potential complications, in August 2019, Russia’s MiG Corporation, which builds Russia’s fighter jets, was caught in a legal battle with one of its subcontractors over software and hardware equipment.80 The subcontractor in question, Bulat, has been one of Russia’s most active companies in riding the wave of the ‘import substitution’ drive in effect since Western sanctions were imposed on the Russian defence industry. However, in this case, Bulat didn’t offer Russian-made technology; rather, it used Huawei’s servers and processors.81 Although MiG did not say publicly why it didn’t pay Bulat, it appears that the aircraft corporation actually requested Chinese technology for its operations. 82
Big data, robotics and artificial intelligence

For China and Russia, AI has emerged as a new priority in technological cooperation. For instance, the countries are seeking to expand the sharing of big data through the Sino-Russian Big Data Headquarters Base Project,83 while another project has been launched to leverage AI technologies, particularly natural language processing, to facilitate cross-border commercial activities, intended for use by Chinese and Russian businesses.84 China’s Ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, said at an investment forum in the autumn of 2018 that the two countries should increase the quality of bilateral cooperation and emphasise the digital economy as a new growth engine, highlighting opportunities for collaboration in AI, along with big data, the internet and smart cities.85 Ambassador Li emphasised:

Russia has unique strength in technological innovation and has achieved significant innovations in many fields of science and technology. China and Russia have unique economic potential and have rich experience in cooperation in many fields. Strengthening collaboration, promoting mutual investment, actively implementing promising innovation projects, expanding direct links between the scientific, business and financial communities of the two countries is particularly important today.86

This bilateral AI development will benefit from each country’s engineers and entrepreneurs.87 From Russia’s perspective, the combined capabilities of China and Russia could contribute to advancing AI, given the high-tech capabilities of Russia’s R&D sector.88 While Russia’s share of the global AI market is small, that market is growing and maturing.89 In Russia, a number of STEM and political figures have spoken favourably about the potential of bilateral R&D in AI. At the World Robotics Forum in August 2017, Vitaly Nedelskiy, the president of the Russian Robotics Association, delivered a keynote speech in which he emphasised that ‘Russian scientists and Chinese robot companies can join hands and make more breakthroughs in this field of robotics and artificial intelligence. Russia is very willing to cooperate with China in the field of robotics.’90 According to Song Kui, the president of the Contemporary China– Russia Regional Economy Research Institute in northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, ‘High-tech cooperation including AI will be the next highlight of China–Russia cooperation.’91

In fact, bilateral cooperation in robotics development has some Russian developers and experts cautiously optimistic. According to the chief designer at Android Technologies, the Russian firm behind the FEDOR (Skybot F-850) robot that was launched to the International Space Station on 22 August 2019, ‘medicine may be the most promising for cooperation with China in the field of robotics.’92

However, hinting at potential copyright issues with respect to China, he further clarified:

[M]edical robotics is better protected from some kind of copying, because if we [Russians] implement some components or mechatronic systems here [in China], then we can sell no more than a few pieces … But since medical robotics is protected by technology, protected by the software itself, which is the key, the very methods of working with patients, on the basis of this, this area is more secure and most promising for [Russian] interaction with the Chinese.93

Revealingly, concerns about copying are a constraint but might not impede joint initiatives, given the potential for mutual benefit nonetheless.

Indeed, advances in AI depend upon massive computing capabilities, enough data for machines to learn from, and the human talent to operate those systems.94 Today, China leads the world in AI subcategories such as connected vehicles and facial and audio recognition technologies, while Russia has manifest strengths in industrial automation, defence and security applications, and surveillance.95 Based on recent activities and exchanges, there are a growing number of indications that Chinese–Russian collaboration in AI is a priority that should be expected to expand.

No comments: