What does the return of panda diplomacy mean for the US and China?

What does the return of panda diplomacy mean for the US and China?© Roshan Patel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute via AP

Story by Justin Klawans, The Week US


The world’s furriest diplomats are coming back to the U.S., as a new pair of giant pandas will be returning to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The pandas, Bao Li and Qing Bao, will be welcomed to the zoo by the end of the year on loan from China and are part of a “new chapter in [the National Zoo’s] efforts to care for, breed and study these iconic animals,” the Smithsonian Institution said.

This marks a new chapter for the National Zoo, which saw their last two pandas return to China just six months ago. The animals had been on loan to the U.S. since the 1970s in what is commonly referred to as “panda diplomacy,” but recent souring relations between the U.S. and China saw the renewal of this exchange run dry at the end of 2023. But now they are coming back.

Does the welcoming of these new bears mean there is a new dawn on the horizon for panda diplomacy? Or are we giving the fluff balls too much credit?

What did the commentators say?

The reopening of panda diplomacy by China “marks a sudden change in attitude from the Chinese government, which in recent years has been refusing to extend lease agreements for pandas living in the United States and other nations critical of the Chinese government,” Jeremiah May said for The Diplomat. Beyond this, it also represents a “notable shift in [Chinese President Xi Jinping’s] approach to the China-U.S. relationship,” being that the two countries “have spent the last decade increasingly ratcheting up their rhetoric, trade conflicts and technological competition.”

But Xi’s recent willingness toward panda diplomacy “indicates that something has changed in the post-COVID, post-Ukraine era — so that he now believes China needs to engender a more amicable Sino-American relationship,” said May.

No matter the reason, it is an “incredible transition,” Mario Mancuso, a visiting senior fellow at the conservative think tank Hudson Institute, said to Washington, D.C.,’s WTOP News. Panda diplomacy “is really important,” especially because “in the last few years, what we’ve been hearing from China is ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. So this is the opposite.” But nothing about the goodwill of the pandas “changes the fundamental dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship,” said Mancuso. China is “still a strategic competitor to the United States — nothing about that changes,” but they are simply trying to soften the edges.

What may be more consequential is the symbolism behind the move. The first two pandas, received by the U.S. in 1972, represented “China’s ‘reform and opening up’ to the Western world as Mao’s cultural revolution came to an end,” said Barbara K. Bodine, a diplomacy professor and director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. They were the initial sign that the “exchange of ideas, people and culture would begin between China and the United States.”

There may be more than meets the eye with these pandas, though, as “to the extent that the arrival of exotic or beautiful animals can impact people’s perception of the gifting country, animal diplomacy certainly is effective,” said Bodine. It remains to be seen how much this will translate when the new pandas arrive in D.C.

What next? 

An exact date for the arrival of Bao Li and Qing Bao has not been announced, though the move holds special significance for the staff of the National Zoo. Bao Li is the grandson of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, the two giant pandas that the zoo returned to China last year.

As part of the agreement, both the Smithsonian and China’s Wildlife Conservation Association will participate in a research and breeding program through at least 2034. And Washington, D.C., will not be the only city getting pandas. It was previously announced that China is planning to loan pandas to the San Diego Zoo this year. San Francisco has also announced plans to receive a pair of pandas for its zoological society. Currently, the only giant pandas in the U.S. are at Zoo Atlanta, but the pandas there are slated to be returned to China.

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