At first glance there seems to be little in common between the People's Republic of China (PRC), governed by an avowedly atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1949, and the Middle East, where states and societies are to a greater or lesser extent dominated by Islam and Muslim culture. Barry Rubin goes further: 'The People's Republic of China has neither strong historical ties nor long-standing strategic interests in the Middle East'. 1 The historical ties are stronger than Rubin suggests, particularly for the 20 million strong Muslim population of China which is distributed throughout the country but is concentrated in strategic border areas in the north west and south west. The presence of this Muslim population influences the way the Chinese government deals with the Middle East, and China's Muslims are affected by China's international relations with the rest of the world of Islam.
China's strategic interests in the Middle East may not be long-standing but they are strong and today focus primarily on trade and energy. In 1990, Xinjiang University Press published a book edited by Zhang Baoguo and entitled Zou xiang Zhongdong: Xinjiang dui Xiya zhuguo kaifang zhanlue yanjiu (Strategic Studies of Xinjiang's opening to the countries of Western Asia). The book analyses the political and economic situation in the Middle East, a region that the authors see as crucial for developing China's western regions. For this region of China at least, the Middle East is of great strategic interest. During the 1980s, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Shaanxi, the five north-western provinces or autonomous regions, began to approach their western Islamic neighbours for trade and investment as prospects for cooperation with the Middle East seemed more promising than with Europe or Japan, given geographical proximity and shared religious and cultural values. Xinjiang's 'friendship delegation' to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, including Mecca, in July 1985 and the Overseas Economic and Trade Fair in August of the same year were early examples of this approach.
The north west secured funding from the Middle East for religious and cultural development programmes. Through its exchange of personnel scheme,