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China-Russia cooperation in advanced technologies: The future global balance of power and the limits of 'unlimited' partnership

November 03 2022

Executive Summary

Advanced technologies are a key factor in the evolving international balance of power. The United States-allied group of states, including Australia, are still generally technology leaders. But the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is making major gains in some fields, spurred by growing pressure on its access to foreign technologies. What impacts might the PRC’s cooperation with Russia have on this equation?

This report provides an overview of Sino-Russian collaboration across four broad fields:

- Telecommunications, artificial intelligence and cyberspace;

- Machine tools, ‘fourth industrial revolution’ applications and microelectronics;

- Defence-oriented technologies; and

- Uses of outer space.

These fields are all consequential for next-generation technologies that will increasingly shape national capabilities and the world’s escalating ‘geo-technological’ competition.

Key takeaways include:

1. PRC collaborations with Russia in all these fields are often less deep than suggested by official descriptions. They are also frequently outweighed by the benefits the PRC receives from collaborations in the same fields with US-aligned advanced economies.

2. Increasingly, Russia is exchanging legacy knowledge for growing PRC strengths, raising questions about the sustainability of these collaborations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also imported risk into technology collaborations from the PRC’s viewpoint, in particular being caught up in sanctions levelled against Russia by the US-aligned advanced economies. The PRC may circumscribe bilateral exchanges with Russia to reduce the risk of further constraints on PRC access to economic opportunities and technology from the US and its allies, though this will become less important the further that these countries’ ‘decoupling’ from the PRC proceeds.

3. There are, however, cases where Russian strengths provide the PRC with technological resources hard to obtain elsewhere. And there remains a strategic logic driving Sino-Russian cooperation, in technology specifically, and more broadly. This stems from mutual threat perceptions towards the US and its allies, and the imperative for Beijing and Moscow to boost their separate positions in this strategic competition. With Sino-US hostility now seemingly implacable, Beijing will not abandon a nation that provides its only counterweight to US-led coalitions.

Sino-Russian technology collaboration must, therefore, be monitored for potential adverse flow-on effects to Australian interests. Judgements about how far this collaboration might extend need to be arrived at critically, factoring in the limitations imposed by the PRC’s own varied interests. Faced with expanding US and US-led controls targeting PRC access to foreign technologies, there is no prospect of Beijing pursuing an ‘unlimited partnership’ with Putin’s Russia in practice.

Nevertheless, the rise of the PRC’s own technological capability and the influence this gives Beijing worldwide, especially in Australia’s own region, remains the most important factor changing Australia’s strategic environment. For some strategic technologies, partnership with Russia may help the PRC at the margins in competition with the US and its allies, even as Russia generally falls further behind the global technological frontier.

Authors:

John Lee is director of the consultancy East West Futures. Previously John was a senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

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