China and Russia are moving to expand their scientific collaboration after promising to work on developing information technology, artificial intelligence and other strategic areas.
With Moscow still under US and European economic sanctions imposed following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Beijing facing increasing Western concern about its tech industry, the two countries have promised to make next year a focus for science and innovation.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree, designating 2020 as the year of Russian-Chinese Scientific, Technical and Innovation Cooperation.
Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign ministry has identified fields such as communications technology, artificial intelligence and the “internet of things” as promising fields for collaboration.
The focus on tech cooperation was agreed by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in June, when they stressed that China-Russia relations had entered a “new era of comprehensive and strategic partnership”, a unique upgrade in Beijing’s foreign policy lexicon.
The focus on science and technology comes on the heels of the two countries’ long-standing military cooperation. Russia has supplied China with a range of equipment – including the S-400 advanced air defence system – and is also helping it to develop a missile defence warning system.
Analysts said Beijing felt the need to expand this partnership further due to ongoing US and European efforts to block Chinese technology firms and research – which it regards as key to its economic development – due to security concerns.
Meanwhile, EU and US sanctions on Russia are continuing to take their toll on the economy, which contracted in 2014 – the year they were first imposed – and has only grown at a rate of 1.2 per cent a year since then.
“The West’s simultaneous pressure on Russia and China is no doubt a major reason why Moscow and Beijing are now more willing to advance their bilateral cooperation in research and development,” said Artyom Lukin, deputy director for research at the School of Regional and International Studies at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.
Observers believe next-generation communications will be one focus for scientific collaboration.
Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has already launched a research programme in Russia, in May this year, and signed deals to build 5G networks with MTS, Russia’s biggest mobile carrier.
Other areas could include robots, facial recognition and artificial intelligence – including dual-use technologies that can be applied for military use – while tech giants such as Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, and Tencent have been working with Russian companies to develop e-commerce.
About 800 events to boost cooperation between China and Russia will be held next year, according to the Russian news agency TASS.
Li Lifan, a professor of international affairs at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said growing Western pressure meant the two sides had a “common interest” in developing next-generation communications technology.
Pan Dawei, a Russian affairs specialist at the same institution, said the “new era” of tech cooperation followed decades of Chinese reliance on Russian tech imports.
“Now, Russia isn’t just a source of technology, but we have a real mutual exchange in scientific development,” said Pan.
Pan added that China also has a need for Russian expertise in mathematics and material science, and in production capabilities such as rocket engines.
“In addition, greater technological cooperation will inevitably deepen economic relations even further,” Pan said.
However, some Russian officials are frustrated that China is catching up its technology and have accused its neighbour of infringing its intellectual property.
Yevgeny Livadny, chief of intellectual property projects of Russian defence conglomerate, said earlier this month that there was a “huge problem” with China copying Russian aircraft engines, planes and other defence system, which is a “huge problem”.
But observers believe such frustrations will not hamper future tech cooperation between China and Russia.
“Until very recently, both Russia and China have been used to hi-tech collaboration with the West rather than with each other,” Lukin said.
“Yet another complicating factor is the emerging technological hubris in China. Whereas China used to lag behind Russia in science and technology, now China has surpassed Russia in a number of areas.
“Nevertheless, these obstacles are manageable and their negative effects can be mitigated, if not fully neutralised, especially given the ongoing strengthening of the Russia-China strategic entente.
“I think the trend for the expansion and deepening of sci-tech cooperation between Russia and China will continue and probably accelerate”.
Tian Chunsheng, a specialist in China-Russia affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said increased economic and trade relations, rather than pressure from the West, was the main reason for the growing tech collaboration.
China-Russia trade will exceed US$110 billion this year, according to estimates from China’s commerce ministry.
“China has both the need, and the desire, to deepen cooperation,” said Tian, adding that the Chinese were likely to focus on Russia’s advanced aerospace and military capabilities.
“Those who say Russia needs China more in this tech cooperation are a bit too narrow in their thinking,” she added.