Beijing and Moscow lay the groundwork for a digital authoritarian future
13 Jun 2019|

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met in Moscow last week and agreed on many things. They agreed on their positions on the Middle East, on Iran, Venezuela, trade and energy, and even on literature and art. They united in their criticism of US policy and decision-making on trade, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.

But the biggest thing they did was to move the Russia–China relationship a big step closer to a working alliance.

Policymakers, analysts and intelligence agencies have long debated the limits of Russian and Chinese cooperation. The common line has been that the partnership is a marriage of convenience driven by shared interests in pushing back against American power and global institutions founded on Western liberal democratic values and concepts.

They have also pointed to the very different Russian and Chinese civilisations. And they have talked about both countries’ shared borders and the tensions that might come over time from that, particularly noting the expansion of China’s presence and influence through Central Asia to Europe as part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Finally, they have noted the growing ‘power asymmetry’ between the Russian and Chinese states, driven by Russian economic and demographic decline, contrasted with Chinese economic expansion and mobilisation of its enormous—albeit rapidly ageing—population.

It’s time now to question all of this. And to throw it away. Because if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, then the thing you’re looking at just might be a duck.

The evidence is that Russia and China have now formed a close working strategic alliance over the seven years since Xi became leader of the Chinese Communist Party. We can see that in the big decisions they took this week, which are being rapidly followed up by Chinese and Russian companies, no doubt working very closely with counterpart agencies of government.

We can also see that in their continuing unity in their work to diminish the power and influence of the United States, Europe and other liberal democracies in global governance and economics.

Their cooperation builds on military exercises like last September’s Vostok 2018 that involved Russian and Chinese troops, as well as their quiet diplomatic support to each other as Moscow annexes territory on its periphery and as Beijing seizes and militarises disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The biggest new indicator of the depth of this alliance relationship, though, is technology. Both Xi and Putin have made public statements about the national power—strategic and economic—that will come to the states that dominate key future technologies, especially artificial intelligence and communications technologies. For example, from Putin: ‘If someone can have a monopoly in the field of artificial intelligence, then the consequences are clear to all of us—they will rule the world’.

Xi made high technology the core of his ‘Made in China 2025’ program. Putin called on Russian agencies and companies in February to produce a master plan for developing digital-economy infrastructure, following through on statements about high technology in recent years.

At last week’s meeting Xi and Putin put real meat on the bones of Russian–Chinese cooperation on digital infrastructure. Specifically, the leaders’ discussions set the scene for two important technology-centred announcements, the biggest being on 5G.

Huawei will become the supplier of 5G technology to Russia through its partnership with Russia’s biggest mobile operator, MTS. And Alibaba completed its joint-venture discussions with Russia’s Megafon and to create a large e-commerce and social commerce provider to serve Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Alibaba is a leading applier of artificial intelligence to its business, and, like other Chinese tech companies, must work closely with the state to serve its needs if it is to survive and prosper.

Putin will have chosen Huawei for the same reasons Australia didn’t: the company is the Chinese state’s 5G national champion and is adept at working within Chinese state policies and laws, which are centred on contributing to the very broad notion of ‘state security’ through cooperation with Chinese authorities and intelligence agencies.

This flows from the nature of the Chinese state, the presence of influential CCP committees throughout Huawei, and the legal obligations on Chinese companies. As a result, Putin is no doubt confident that Huawei will work well in his similar authoritarian environment and cooperate well with Russian intelligence and security agencies, as a key element of the strategic partnership with Xi’s China.

Another Russian telecommunications company, Tele2, has been pursuing a relationship with Ericsson on 5G for a while now. Tele2, which split from its Swedish parent in 2013, must be wondering about what the strategic trends set out by Putin and Xi mean for its business choices and future.

The Huawei announcement is a big brand endorsement from both Putin and Xi. It cements Huawei as the 5G provider of choice for the world’s digital authoritarian rulers, and shows that Xi and Putin are proud advocates for their system of authoritarian government, enabled by high technology that helps control their populations and repress dissent.

It also shows the mutual benefit that Russia and China derive from their partnership, which has led to its becoming the working alliance we now see. Russia continues to be a critical source of advanced military systems and technology for China’s military, but now China is reciprocating with its own technology flow to Russia, particularly in the area of internet and communications technologies.

Both Russia and China are ‘sophisticated state actors’ in the world of cyber power. Russia is the poster child for cyber-driven election interference, while the Chinese state is notorious for cyber intrusions into companies, universities, government agencies, and political parties and institutions.

Each can add to the other’s expertise and capability—in protective measures and in more successful approaches to foreign interference.

So, this deepening high-technology partnership is bad news for much of the rest of the world, particularly those who create technological dependency on China by buying into its global technology expansion.

The overall message from Xi and Putin is clear: digital authoritarianism depends on partnering with firms that enable it—and Huawei fits the bill for the Russian and Chinese states.

That’s a timely and sobering clarification for other governments pondering their own 5G futures. Non-authoritarian technology alternatives are viable but require foresight in decision-making and decisive effort in implementation.