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Pandemic partnership: coronavirus clears path for deeper China-Russia ties in hi-tech

China's President Xi Jinping, shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Beijing and Moscow are being pushed together by the coronavirus pandemic in what could lead to a deepening partnership on next-generation technologies, a development that could greatly affect Eurasia.

China and Russia were already cooperating closely on building up their high-tech infrastructure and capabilities prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

“The pandemic doesn’t create a new reality, but amplifies existing trends,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “Sanctions and suspicions of relying on Western tech were already driving Moscow and China closer, but COVID allows things to move forward at a faster pace.”

Russia’s top phone operator, MTS, signed an agreement in 2019 with China’s Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of 5G equipment, to help develop network infrastructure in the country.

Likewise, Russia’s growing embrace of mass surveillance of its population through facial recognition led it to enhanced cooperation with China’s Hikvision, a partially state-owned leader of the technology.

And as China continues to flout its successes in harnessing its tech tools to contain and roll back the coronavirus and position itself as a model for the post-pandemic world, Moscow is set to open the door further to Chinese tech companies and converge more with Beijing.

Such collaboration could have major repercussions for the future of hi-tech in many countries in Eurasia, where Chinese companies are pushing their wares to and finding buyers among authoritarian leaders across the former Soviet Union.

Moscow’s city government was an early adopter of facial-recognition technology, building up a vast network of more than 170,000 surveillance cameras that officials say has helped them track the spread of COVID-19 across the Russian capital and punish those who have broken quarantine rules.

But the coronavirus has also exposed the limits of Russia’s surveillance systems, which has suffered from a lack of comprehensive data, coordination, and sloppy implementation.

One example was the launch of a QR-code digital-pass system in Moscow on April 15 to limit and track the movement of people in the city during quarantine. Poor rollout and communication led to many people who needed passes for work unable to get them, with some 900,000 others receiving codes that the city authorities later said were issued unfairly. Police also checked the passes manually, leading to long and confined lines at subway-station entrances that likely hastened the spread of the coronavirus — which has infected more than 290,000 Russians, the second-most of any country in the world after the United States.

While the rollout of the QR-code system was a small episode in the saga of combating the coronavirus in Russia, it will feed the Kremlin’s growing desire to quickly embrace and scale up more Chinese-style monitoring systems across the country.

“Now that Russia is trying to roll out this mass surveillance model with limited success, it will lead to them relying more on Chinese know-how and hardware,” said Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

Balancing A Relationship

Beijing and Moscow forged a stronger partnership in the aftermath of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and have since moved to strengthen their ties, cooperating on joint military exercises, missile defense, and economic projects in the Arctic.

While the two countries’ interests have not always aligned, their governments have a shared animosity for the United States, which has carried over as both Moscow and Beijing have found themselves squeezed out from access to Western technology in recent years.

Following the ban by the United States on Huawei and its global campaign against the company, the Chinese mobile giant is set to play a greater role in Russia.

In addition to the partnership with MTS, Huawei spent $50 million in June 2019 for the rights to the facial-recognition technology developed by the Russian startup Vocord, a potential model for merging Russian software under the umbrella of Chinese hardware.

The deals were signed during a visit to Russia by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who announced a joint investment fund for high-tech projects with President Vladimir Putin that launched in September 2019 with an initial budget of $1 billion. Huawei later signed another deal in 2019 with an artificial-intelligence research center backed by Moscow.

“As pressure grows from U.S. policies and other concerns, Russia is an attractive alternative as a market for collaboration and to recruit talent for Chinese companies,” said Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security’s technology and national security program.

In addition to high-profile deals, Huawei has also expanded its presence in recruiting highly skilled specialists from Russia, setting up centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Novosibirsk, and Nizhny Novgorod.

This growing reliance on China is set to continue as the pandemic changes the economic and political reality within Russia.

The combination of strict quarantine measures and lost oil revenues will lead to increased belt-tightening by the Russian state. Similarly, the growing reliance on teleworking brought on by the coronavirus will also require accelerating upgrades to digital infrastructure and a swifter rollout of its 5G network.

With the Russian state budget under pressure, Chinese companies, which can provide world-leading tech at a far lower price point than their Western competitors, have a serious advantage.

Hurdles To Deeper Cooperation

However, while growing tech ties between Beijing and Moscow is inevitable, a series of factors could function as roadblocks to deeper cooperation.

Russia is hesitant to completely open up all its sectors to Chinese vendors — in part due to a history of Chinese cybertheft of Russian designs — and there are growing concerns about Russia’s smaller companies being dominated by China’s global tech giants.

Implementing a Chinese-style surveillance model across Russia could also lead to major structural issues, says Andrei Soldatov, the co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators And The New Online Revolutionaries, where surveillance technologies are implemented on a city or regional level, not nationally.

“This works for Moscow, which has money and capabilities,” he said. “But that’s not the case across the country, which could lead to a very complicated and uneven picture in Russia.”