China and Russia have declared 2020 and 2021 as years of scientific and technological innovation cooperation, focusing on biotech, artificial intelligence, and robotics.1 Both countries view AI as critical to their respective domestic and foreign policy objectives, and they are ramping up investments in AI-related research and development, though China’s investments far outweigh Russia’s. U.S. observers are watching this convergence between America’s two key competitors with increasing concern, if not alarm. Some worry that alignment between Beijing and Moscow, especially in the areas of science and technology, could accelerate the development of surveillance tools to enhance authoritarian control of domestic populations. Others warn that deepening Sino-Russian cooperation will dilute the effects of sanctions on Russia. Still others fear that the strengthening partnership between China and Russia will undermine U.S. strategic interests and those of its democratic allies in Europe and Asia.2
Chinese and Russian sources are keen to publicize their “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era,” potentially underscoring the seriousness of their joint ambitions.3 Yet the scale and scope of this emerging partnership deserve closer scrutiny, particularly in the field of AI. To what extent are China and Russia following up on their declared intentions to foster joint research, development, and commercialization of AI-related technologies? In other words, how do we separate headlines from trend lines?
This issue brief analyzes the scope of cooperation and relative trends between China and Russia in two key metrics of AI development: research publications and investment. Our key findings are as follows:
- Research: Between 2010 and 2019, Chinese and Russian researchers collaborated on 296 English-language, AI-related papers. This figure accounts for less than 0.1 percent of China’s and about 2 percent of Russia’s overall AI-related publication output over the same time period.
- Investment: Between 2016 and 2019, private AI investment between China and Russia totaled $879 million across 12 deals; Beijing and Moscow concluded five additional AI investment deals of undisclosed value.
- Research: In 2019, there were 14 times as many AI-related publications co-authored by Chinese and Russian researchers as there were in 2010, with collaboration notably increasing since 2016.
- Investment: From 2016 to 2021, the level of Chinese-Russian AI investment increased, but the majority of funding flowed from Russia to China.
- Research: The top AI-related fields for joint research by Chinese and Russian scientists are pattern recognition, algorithm development, computer vision, machine learning, remote sensing, data mining, control engineering, and natural language processing.
- Investment: Chinese AI investments in Russia focus on internet services, telecommunications, robotics, and facial recognition. Russian AI investments into China focus on e-commerce, autonomous driving technology, and medical services/robotics.
Chinese-Russian AI Collaboration in Perspective:
- Research: Between 2010 and 2019, collaboration between U.S. and Chinese researchers produced nearly 129 times more AI-related publications than collaborations between Chinese and Russian researchers and 52 times more AI-related publications than collaborations between U.S. and Russian researchers. AI-related research collaborations between the United States and Russia declined in 2019, which may reflect the impact of sanctions. While the number of U.S.-China AI-related research publications continued to increase through 2019, given the heightened tensions, data from 2020 and 2021 could show different trends.
- Investment: China-Russia AI investment levels are higher than U.S.-Russia AI investment, but much lower than U.S.-China AI investments. Recent trends, however, show declining levels of U.S. AI investment in both China and Russia over the 2018–2020 period, while Russian-Chinese AI investment has increased relative to 2016 levels. U.S. investment in China declined from $13 billion in 2017 to $1.3 billion in 2020; meanwhile, the United States invested a negligible amount in Russia. China-Russia investment increased from $182 million dollars in 2016 to $517 million in 2017, but then declined to $100 million in 2018 and $80 million in 2019. While 2020 saw no disclosed AI investment between China and Russia, investment levels already topped $300 million by January 2021.
Our findings both confirm assessments of the expanding partnership between China and Russia and add an important caveat with regards to its scope and limitations. There has been a steady increase in AI-related research collaboration between the two nations and an even steeper rise since 2016. This upward trend mirrors the global expansion of AI research, propelled by increased computing power and the availability of large datasets. The overall number of joint Chinese-Russian AI-related publications, however, remains relatively low—whether as a share of each country’s scholarly output or compared with the number of papers researchers from China and Russia co-authored with researchers from the United States over the same period of time.
The AI-related investment data tell a similar story—an upward trend in Chinese-Russian investment deals over the past five years, but the overall value remains relatively low. Russia seems to be investing more in private AI companies in China than China invests in the Russian AI ecosystem. Yet the United States remains Russia’s primary destination for AI investment, and the value of U.S.-China AI investments is much greater than the sum of Chinese-Russian deals.
Two caveats are worth underscoring. First, these metrics provide insights only into specific aspects of a much broader relationship. Second, the time frame of our analysis and data limitations preclude definitive judgements. By focusing on collaborative research and AI-related investments, we seek to develop useful indicators for tracking progress in the Chinese-Russian high-tech partnership. Our findings expose gaps between Chinese and Russian aspirations and the reality on the ground, bringing greater accuracy and nuance to current assessments of Sino-Russian cooperation.
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- Anastasia Muravyeva and Vasily Lemutov, “How Chinese Tech Companies Are Conquering Russia,” Carnegie Moscow Center, January 11, 2021, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/83589. For the Chinese government declaration on this topic, see Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “中华人民共和国和俄罗斯联邦关于发展新时代全面战略协作伙伴关系的联合声明（全文）,” June 6, 2019, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/zyxw/t1670118.shtml.
- Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “Navigating the Deepening Russia-China Partnership” (Center for a New American Security, January 2021), https://s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS-Report-Russia-China-Alignment-final-v2.pdf?mtime=20210114133035&focal=none; Nahal Toosi, “Biden fears what ‘best friends’ Xi and Putin could do together,” Politico, June 14, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/06/14/us-officials-russia-links-china-putin-biden-jinping-494314.
- Frederick Kempe, “China, Russia deepen cooperation in what could be Biden’s defining challenge as president,” CNBC, April 18, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/18/op-ed-china-russia-cooperation-could-be-bidens-biggest-challenge.html; “China-Russia Ties Deepen While US and Allies Flail: Global Times Editorial,” Global Times, March 21, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219002.shtml.