Lauren Dudley is a Research Associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Growing global technology tensions have led Huawei to make a bet on Russia. This strategy—while largely driven by Huawei being pushed out of the West—is also catalyzed by Chinese and Russian government support for bilateral science and technological (S&T) cooperation.
Acknowledging that the world is going through “changes unseen in a century,” Chinese and Russian officials have touted opportunities for the two neighbors to cooperate in S&T. In official statements, Beijing and Moscow have encouraged talent exchanges, cooperative research and development, and the joint development of new technologies and applications. Both sides suggest that their complementary advantages, namely China’s industrial applications and Russian basic research and talent, can spur each country's development.
Huawei’s recent pivot to Russia reflects this pattern of cooperation, garnering high-level support from both governments. The Russian government has specifically welcomed Huawei’s increased presence in hopes that Huawei’s training programs, local research centers, purchases of Russian technology, and promises to jointly develop or share emerging technologies will help prevent brain drain and promote local innovation. Chinese officials have also highlighted Huawei’s efforts to construct 5G networks abroad as an example of the benefits of bilateral S&T cooperation.
Huawei not only benefits from the bilateral S&T partnership, but also helps facilitate it. For example, in October 2018, Huawei hosted an exchange among members of the Russian Security Council, the Duma, and Chinese cyber officials. At the meeting, Chinese and Russian representatives discussed the security of DNS root servers, the development of Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law (which tightens Moscow’s control over the country’s internet infrastructure and aims to make it possible for Russia to disconnect its network from the global internet), and international cooperation in information security. In effect, Huawei’s work in Russia reinforces bilateral S&T cooperation.
Huawei’s highly publicized expansion in Russia and important role in bilateral S&T cooperation has set high expectations for the partnership. This comes with some risks. As other analysts have noted, the China-Russia S&T partnership could face some roadblocks if China does not fulfill its promise to share technology and enhance the local innovation ecosystem, or even worse, steals Russian intellectual property. Huawei’s track record suggests that this is a possibility, which would threaten its work in Russia and bilateral S&T cooperation more broadly.
But, considering Huawei’s growing investment in Russia and the strong bilateral support for S&T cooperation, Huawei's role in Russia is most likely to deepen, at least for the near future. This presents several considerations for U.S. foreign policy.
Most significantly, a stronger Huawei-Russia S&T partnership could further legitimize and increase the use of authoritarian technology applications and accelerate the bifurcation of the global technological system. By helping Russia upgrade its technological capabilities, notably by installing smart city surveillance systems and facilitating the development of Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law, Huawei has further legitimized digital authoritarianism. This model, which promotes surveillance, censorship, and other authoritarian uses of technology, has been implemented in countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe—sometimes with the help of Huawei—to suppress dissent, limit information flows, and enable human rights abuses. Russian support for these Huawei applications could spur greater global adoption of these technologies, particularly in former Soviet republics.
It is also possible that the stronger Huawei-Russia S&T partnership could increase Russian support for Huawei-led technology standards proposals, which may further legitimize authoritarian uses of technology. Russia, for example, has supported Huawei-led technology proposals in the past, such as the “New IP” initiative (despite its lack of technical details and merit). Russia may eventually support proposals in other domains in which the company is active in standards-setting, such as facial recognition, telecommunications, and smart cities. This could further promote authoritarian uses of technology and the bifurcation of the global technological system.
While the incoming Biden administration is limited in its ability to prevent China-Russia S&T cooperation, or Huawei’s role in it, the incoming administration should closely monitor the relationship. Understanding where the two sides succeed, and where they fail, will allow Washington to cooperate more effectively with partners to promote democratic models of technology governance.