The USA and China are about to resume trade talks. How will China’s policy of ‘Panda Diplomacy’ be affected?
Giant Panda Bears are a much beloved animal all around the world, but did you know that the Chinese use their popularity for something more than just selling tickets at the local zoo?
Narrator: This is Bao Bao. She was born in 2013 at The National Zoo in Washington D.C.. Here she is biting her foot. Here she is in the snow. And here she is in a jumbo sized FedEx crate bound for a one-way trip to Chug-doo China. Bao Bao left because she was never ours to keep. Her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, came from China 17 years ago, but they weren’t a gift they were a loan and that loan stipulated their offspring will also belong to China as do almost all of the pandas in zoos world wide. Panda’s natural habitat exists entirely within the boarders on one country and that means these animals are more than just mascots for China; they’re also tools in China’s global diplomatic strategy.
Dara Lind, Staff Writer, Vox: What China figured out as it, kind of, became more of an international power in the 2nd half of the 20th Century was that this was something it could use to its advantage.
Narrator: Pandas have been part of Chinese foreign policy since at least the 1950s.
Lind: Initially it was just, kind of, given in the same way that, you know, governments have usually given exotic animals to others. They gave pandas to its allies. Then after pandas became officially endangered and that looked kind of tacky they started giving pandas as loans.
Narrator: In return the receiving zoos pay $1M per panda each year in fees and if a cub is born, zoos pay an extra cub tax of $400K.
Lind: The thing is that China doesn’t give pandas to any country that can put up the money for a loan; it’s much more selective than that.
Narrator: Researchers at the University of Oxford have noticed a correlation between panda loans and China’s international trade deals.
Lind: So in 2010 China realized that it needed to find more market capacity to buy salmon. Their traditional trading partner who was Norway had been kind of….The Nobel Peace Prize had gone to a Chinese dissident, China didn’t feel like rewarding that behavior so instead they turned to Scotland which also produces salmon, also produces Land Rovers which is something else the Chinese affluent class were interested in. And so they inked that trade deal and a panda was sent to the Edinburgh zoo.
Narrator: But what China gives it can also take away. Consider the case of Tai Shan, Bao Bao’s older brother from D.C..
Lind: China had made it known toward the end of 2009 that it wanted to take back the panda Tai Shan. It hadn’t really set a date yet.
Narrator: Officials at The National Zoo asked China to extend his stay, but the answer was no. Experts suspect a couple of factors were involved in that choice.
Lind: One: President Obama had met with the Dali Lama who is a strong critic of the Chinese government and a fierce advocate for the independence of Tibet which the Chinese government denies.
Narrator: And 2nd: The US announced an arms sale to Taiwan over Chinese objections. A week later Tai Shan and another
panda from The Atlanta Zoo were on their way to China.
Lind: It considers pandas as kind of another arm of diplomacy. In the same way that in the event of a diplomatic spat one country might recall its ambassador or might impose economic sanctions, China sees, or certainly appears to see from the way that its agreements go, pandas as kind of a way to reinforce international relationships that it’s building and that it wants to continue.
Narrator: More recently we saw China delay a panda delivery following the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 152 Chinese nationals.
Lind: In 2014 Malaysia was all ready to get its first panda. They had an enclosure ready at the zoo and all of that and the day of the panda’s supposed arrival came and went because the Chinese government was extremely frustrated with the Malaysian government’s investigation of the flight, didn’t feel that it was doing enough and so kept the pandas for another month or two as a way to demonstrate to the Malaysian government that yeah, you know, we’ve signed a regional trade deal with you, we’re interested in pursuing a relationship, but you’re not making us super happy right now.
Narrator: Currently the US still has 12 pandas including Bao Bao’s new little brother Bai Bai, but future relations with China could change that.
Lind: It’s entirely possible that whether in a military respect in the South China Sea or in a political respect with regards to Taiwan that China will find good reason to feel that the US in no longer interested in pursuing the kind of warm partnership that they’ve had. So what that means for Panda Diplomacy is really anyone’s guess.