A Match Made in Heaven: China-Russia Tech Co-operation and Canada’s National Security


A Match Made in Heaven: China-Russia Tech Co-operation and Canada’s National Security

1 Mar 2024

Table of Contents Introduction Key Areas of Tech Co-operation A New Era of Challenges The Way Forward References About the Author Canadian Global Affairs Institute Introduction For several years, technological co-operation between China and Russia has been steadily increasing. From nuclear weapons and outer space technology to artificial intelligence and semiconductors, Beijing and Moscow appear closer than ever. Indeed, in 2019 Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as his “best friend.” Striking a similar tone in March 2023, Putin suggested that increasing co-operation between the two nations would lead to “truly unlimited possibilities” (The Guardian 2023). Yet, while analysts and observers throughout Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere have noted this surge in tech relations between the two countries, little research and analysis have been undertaken to examine the potential consequences for the West as the two countries become increasingly aligned. Further, while China and Russia are consistently presented as the main hostile actors threatening Canada’s national security and the U.S.-led international order, high-level strategic documents (e.g., Canada’s 2017 defence policy, Canada’s 2018 National Cyber Security Strategy, the 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy, etc.) typically approach both countries as distinct threat actors, overlooking how their synergies align and strategic interests converge. This piece looks to help fill that gap, with specific emphasis on technological co-operation between the two nations, and how Canada and its allies ought to think about Beijing’s relationship with Moscow. TOP OF PAGE Key Areas of Tech Co-operation Across all dimensions of the China-Russia relationship, technological co-operation in the defence space is most concerning. Over the last number of years, the two countries have pursued several agreements and defence co-operation frameworks. These include the 2017 signing of a road map on military co-operation from 2017 to 2020 and the 2021 Road Map for Military Co-operation for 2021–2025. Specifically, since 2014, when Russia’s relationship with the U.S. became particularly fractious, China and Russia have become increasingly close militarily as Russia has turned to China to fill numerous defence-related gaps created by the Kremlin’s damaged relationship with the West. As Kendall-Taylor and Shullman (2021) have noted, while their relationship in this domain “falls short of a traditional military alliance,” the two countries are co-operating in militarily significant ways that could pose major national security threats for Canada and its allies. In August 2021, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s long-time defence minister, said, “we have achieved a high level of interaction between our armed forces on land, in the air and at sea.” Shoigu said this represents “an important trend towards further activity” (Reuters 2021). This “interaction” Shoigu speaks of is particularly problematic when it comes to arms sales and technological co-operation in dual-use domains. In terms of arms sales, China-Russia military transfers have surged since 2015. These include several strategically significant arms transactions, such as milestone contracts in 2015 for the sale of Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 air defence systems worth $5 billion, as well as a series of important transactions involving the transfer of helicopters, submarine technology and aircraft engines (Schwartz 2021). This alignment and these types of sales benefit each country differently. For China, the volume and nature of transactions are a signal that Beijing considers Russian military technology to be attractive, despite several important technological advancements China has made in its own defence space. Russia’s expertise in certain key areas, such as air defence, anti-ship and submarine capabilities, has enabled China to enhance its own military. Despite Beijing’s relentless efforts to acquire sensitive technology and intellectual property from other countries, including Canada, Russia has enabled China to do it in ways China otherwise could not, or at least would not be able to over the near term. China’s recent multi-billion dollar acquisition of 24 Su-35 Russian fighter jets – which made it the first international buyer of these aircraft – highlights the importance of Russian technology to China and the People’s Liberation Army (Gady 2019). Indeed, this acquisition provided China access to advanced Russian radar systems, aircraft engines and avionics at a time when the country is becoming increasingly belligerent in the Indo-Pacific, but also when China is struggling to develop its own fifth-generation aircraft. Reports also suggest both countries are collaborating on submarine technology and design. For instance, in October 2023 it was reported that China had made significant progress towards the development of new harder-to-detect nuclear submarines, thanks in large part to Russian technology and expertise (Torode 2023). Using a distinctive angled sail, the new submarine – the first of its kind in the world – reduces the effectiveness of the enemy’s sonar detection capabilities, increasing the submarine’s survivability. Similar to the benefits of acquiring Russian aircraft and aerospace technology, alignment and co-operation in the maritime domain will enable China to overcome persistent deficiencies and challenge U.S. superiority at sea
china security united states ai supply chain canada russia sanctions global defence policy perspective space international politics diplomacy & global governance cyber & tech defence innovation casey babb


Casey E. Babb

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