Hi-Tech, High Risk? Russo-Chinese Cooperation on Emerging Technologies

The sky's the limit: satellite technology is one of the areas that has been the focus of intense Russo-Chinese collaboration. Image: Mechanik / Alamy

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, China has kept the world in suspense regarding its military aid to Moscow. While China remains hesitant about the breadth and intensity of its military support for Russia, its cooperation with Moscow on civilian cellular and satellite technologies could have significant intelligence and military outcomes.

Despite backing Moscow politically and diplomatically, Beijing has declared that it will not send weapons to Russia or Ukraine. Nonetheless, this has not dissuaded Chinese companies from reportedly supplying Russia with assault rifles, body armour and drones via clandestine shipments, nor has it impeded China’s collaboration with Russia on 5G and satellite technologies with abundant (and, often, already utilised) battlefield applications, particularly in Ukraine.

Extensive deployment of drones and advanced telecommunications equipment have been crucial on all fronts in Ukraine, from intelligence collection to airstrike campaigns. These technologies, though critical, require steady connectivity and geospatial support, making cooperation with China a potential solution to Moscow’s desire for a military breakthrough.

Reaching Out: Improving Connectivity with 5G

5G has the potential to reshape the battlefield through enhanced tracking of military objects; faster transferring and real-time processing of large sensor datasets (like soldiers’ biometrics or large-resolution drone images); and enhanced communications, including between autonomous vehicles. Given the urgency of Russia’s objectives in Ukraine, it may want to tap into such potential – something which could be aided by China.

Recently, 5G network development has accrued particular significance in the Russo-Chinese strategic calculus, resulting in a series of agreements between Huawei and major Russian ICT players including MTS and Beeline. In 2021, Huawei and MTS successfully launched commercial 5G networks across 14 locations in Moscow and implemented a pilot 5G network reaching data transfer speeds of 5.6 Gbps – a record for Russia at the time. This new technology allowed for very sophisticated and remote operations: for example, Russia’s GMS Hospital, with support from Beeline and Huawei, performed surgeries using 5G-connected medical equipment that enabled the real-time transfer of high-resolution images to doctors remotely assisting their colleagues in the operating theatre.

Beeline and Huawei have also cooperated on 5G-driven machine-to-machine interactions, and in 2020 they launched a pilot 5G zone to operate unmanned and remotely controlled dump trucks at a Russian coal mine. As previously mentioned, increased network throughput, high-speed data transfer and integration of networks into civilian and military autonomous vehicles are precisely the features that could render Russo-Chinese 5G cooperation extremely useful in a wartime context – and therefore create a heightened risk for Ukraine.

However, there are operational and institutional constraints on Russia’s battlefield integration of 5G technology. At the onset of the invasion, Russian troops extensively utilised unencrypted, high-frequency radio for long-range communications, allowing Ukrainians to successfully intercept signals and conversations. The deep-seated tendency within the Russian military to favour risk-prone communication methods may render the integration of 5G into Russian command-and-control quite problematic.

Strategic collaboration between Russia and China in a contested, future-oriented domain like satellite technology could have serious implications for Ukraine

Beyond that, Russia’s Ministry of Defence, Federal Security Service and Federal Space Agency have already prevented mobile operators, including those cooperating with Huawei on 5G networks, from using the frequencies most conducive to 5G deployment – the 3.4–3.8 GHz range – by reserving their use for the Russian security apparatus.

Reaching Up: Enhancing Navigation and Observation with Satellites

Satellite technology, another instrument capable of augmenting Russia’s military performance, is already the focus of intense Russo-Chinese collaboration. These tools collect valuable imagery, weather and terrain data; improve logistics management; track and predict troop movements; and enhance precision in the identification and elimination of ground targets.

Since 2014, Russia and China have discussed collaboration between the Russian satellite navigation system GLONASS and its Chinese equivalent, Beidou. Russia has repeatedly tested GLONASS/Beidou compatibility on Russian transport routes along the Belt and Road corridor; tentative results from 2017 and 2018 claimed improved satellite navigation in 100% of monitored cases, allegedly surpassing individual results from GLONASS as well as Western GPS and Galileo systems. In 2018, Russia and China agreed on the joint application of GLONASS/Beidou and, in 2022, they decided to build three Russian monitoring stations in the Chinese cities of Changchun, Ürümqi and Shanghai and three Chinese stations in the Russian cities of Obninsk, Irkutsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Satellites are the ultimate enablers of Russian strategic air capabilities. In Ukraine, GLONASS has already enabled Russian missile and drone strikes via satellite correction and supported communications between Russian troops through its connection to Azart portable digital radios. The Russian Azart manufacturer, Angstrem, has collaborated with Huawei since 2011 and reportedly imported almost fully assembled Azart radios from China, causing a corruption scandal in Russia in 2021. RUSI previously identified Angstrem microchips in Russian weapons used in Ukraine. The resulting Chinese footprint in Azart radios could help Russia expedite GLONASS/Beidou integration to improve satellite-driven tactical operations. Additionally, Russia could exploit Beidou’s ability to facilitate the navigation and tracking of autonomous vehicles for strategic attacks with missiles and drones.

Strategic collaboration between the two states in a contested, future-oriented domain like satellite technology could have serious implications for Ukraine, despite claims that such cooperation is in pursuit of ‘peaceful goals’. Russia’s published map of GLONASS and Beidou satellites, updated regularly, periodically shows satellites reaching over Ukraine. Coupled with the anticipated construction of Beidou’s Obninsk monitoring station, the closest of the three Chinese stations to Ukraine, Russia is increasingly capable of leveraging satellite cooperation with China against Ukraine.

There is also the risk of China assisting Moscow on imagery and geospatial intelligence through other satellite-based platforms, potentially leading to worrisome scenarios in which China tests the waters for escalated tensions with the West.

After Western geospatial companies exited Russia in 2022, Chinese companies signed agreements with Russian MoD partner Racurs to provide remote sensing data for security management, infrastructure monitoring and other applications. One company, HEAD Aerospace, has already provided more remote sensing data than its leading Russian competitor across a geography of delivery encompassing Donbas and Crimea.

Racurs has also considered sharing photogrammetric software with Chinese counterparts to improve drone image processing, and a Chinese company sold two high-resolution observation satellites to the Wagner Group in 2022 to aid its intelligence capabilities in Ukraine and across Africa. Ultimately, such dynamic interactions with Chinese companies may improve Russian military logistics, reconnaissance capabilities, geospatial intelligence and drone deployment in Ukraine. Additionally, lessons learned through such cooperation could feasibly be applied in other theatres, including a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Ukraine and its Western partners should prepare for the potential expansion of Russo-Chinese technological collaboration on the battlefield

However, China has already exhibited potential reticence towards satellite technology transfers to Moscow. Despite a 2017 joint agreement between Moscow and Beijing to develop a GLONASS/Beidou navigation chipset for facilitating the systems’ integration, Beijing allegedly decided in 2020 to limit cooperation on some GLONASS chipsets to prioritise its own national satellite system. Such apprehension has clearly not completely stalled Russo-Chinese satellite technology collaboration, but it does reveal China’s wariness about leaning too fully into a lockstep relationship with Russia.

All Eyes to the East: What Comes Next?

Russia’s capacity for repurposing civilian 5G and satellite cooperation with China for military applications continues to expand, albeit at different paces on each respective front. Battlefield integration of 5G networks may face domestic hurdles, but infrastructure enabling China to assist Russian satellite usage already exists and can facilitate Russian military action in Ukraine.

Admittedly, Russo-Chinese cooperation is not always smooth sailing, but differences in policy are unlikely to inhibit the strengthening of ties between the two states. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community – especially partners of Ukraine – are aware of Moscow and Beijing’s intentions for 5G and satellite technology sharing and respond through political calculus and risk management strategies.

Such a response would ideally adopt a two-pronged approach. First, governments should disincentivise military applications of Russo-Chinese 5G and satellite collaboration – for example, through economic restrictions on the flow of Western technology into Russia or China related to joint programmes with likely military applications, or through political pressure to work together in exclusively civilian capacities. Concurrently, Ukraine should prepare for the potential expansion of Russo-Chinese technological collaboration on the battlefield – and so should the West, given that the impacts of such cooperation will extend to its ongoing lines of support.

A proactive reaction from Ukraine and its partners may not only prove decisive in evading any artificial enhancement of Russia’s battlefield capabilities, but it may very well also prevent a wider rift between Russia and China and the West from looming ever more heavily on the horizon.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Roman Kolodii

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Dr Giangiuseppe Pili

RUSI Associate Fellow; Assistant Professor, James Madison University

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Jack Crawford

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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