Home > Uncategorized > Panda Diplomacy: Not So Cuddly Anymore

Panda Diplomacy: Not So Cuddly Anymore

image from the Korea Times

A giant panda gift from the Chinese government has long been a symbol of bilateral cooperation and improved relations. Most recently, China threw around its weight, panda-style, after a diplomatic rift with Japan. In early September, two Japanese naval vessels tried to intercept a Chinese boat near the Diaoyu islands, a disputed territory of the East China Sea, resulting in a collision. The Japanese seized the fishing vessel and brought the crew to Japan for questioning. The Chinese demanded the crew’s release, issuing stern public statements about the illegality of the detainment.  Shortly after the incident, a Chinese team was sent to Japan to investigate the unexpected death of a giant panda on loan to a Japanese zoo. Japan could be fined up to US$500,000 for the panda death.

The practice of using pandas as a tool to improve international relations dates back to the Tang dynasty, more than a thousand years ago. Historical records from the period describe the presentation of two pandas to a Japanese court. In the 1970s, the practice gained popularity under Mao Zedong, sending pandas to several foreign governments, most famously presenting President Nixon with two pandas at the end of the famous 1972 visit. From 1958 to 1982, China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries. In 2005, two pandas were given to the people of Taiwan after a meeting between the Communist Party of China and Taiwan’s Kuomintang. In January 2006, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was photographed hugging a 5-month-old panda cub during a visit to Sichuan Province. The photograph was presented by the Chinese media as a sign that Zoellick supported improved bilateral relations.

In 2005, China said it would no longer gift pandas to foreign nations. Instead, pandas would only be “lent” out (for as much as US$1 million/year) for biological breeding and research purposes. Still, the recent altercation with the Japanese and their pandas shows that the zoo will still remain a battlefield.. China’s panda diplomacy is looking a little less cuddly these days.

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