Fluffy Ambassadors: China’s Panda Diplomacy

Preethi Amaresh, Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S)

The giant panda has proven itself to be an instrument of foreign affairs and its use as a soft power tool has played a part in International relations. Pandas are considered to be a symbol of peace for China. China’s policy of sending pandas as diplomatic gifts was revitalized in 1941 when Beijing sent two pandas to the Bronx Zoo as a “thank you” gift on the eve of the United States entering World War II. This stimulated the relationship between countries, which in turn increased China’s soft power in the panda-receiving country. Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, often engaged in panda diplomacy in the 1950s, sending the bears as gifts to North Korea and the Soviet Union.

According to one theory, the movement of pandas from China to another country means that the other country accepts the extension of “China” on its territory. It all began in 1941 where Soong Mei-Ling (First lady of the People’s Republic of China) sent the first batch of pandas as gifts to the U.S. In 1949, after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, more giant pandas were shipped abroad. One well-known example is when the Chinese government presented two pandas to U.S President Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1982, which turned out to be an enormous diplomatic success with respect to China’s establishment of relations with the U.S.

Pandas presented by China to Japan are considered to be a symbol of the friendly ties between Japan and China. Recently during a visit to China, the American first lady, Melania Trump, also engaged in Panda Diplomacy at the Beijing Zoo. The pandas, Cai Tao and Hu Chun, Which have captured the hearts of millions in Indonesia are considered to be part of China’s long-running ‘Panda Diplomacy’ programme, arrived at Jakarta, in November 2017 from China to their new home in a multi-million dollar sanctuary. This also signifies a strong bilateral relationship between China and Indonesia.

The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 escalated tensions between Malaysia and China. But the arrival of the Pandas, Feng Yi and Fu Wa, in 2014 was seen as a healing touch in the relationship between the two nations after China had openly reprimanded Malaysia for the way the disaster was handled.

The panda is considered to be an emblem of China similar to how the dragon is the symbol of its nationalism. The giant panda is listed as an endangered species in the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species. With only about 1,600 left in the wild, breeding programmes in China are considered to be incredibly important in ensuring the future of such beautiful animals. Panda cubs born to the giant pandas which are given on a loan as a token of friendship and goodwill to the other countries have to be sent back to the Chinese breeding programme to expand the gene pool before they turn four.

The panda bears unlike China’s Confucius Institutes, remain well-liked when it comes to governments across the world and they are eager and happy to welcome them. Pandas have been used as themes for Chinese movies like The Story of Panda, Taotao, Little Panda Learns to be a Carpenter and Hollywood movies such as the Kung Fu Panda series. The most recent one is Born in China, which released on the World Earth Day, 2017, and is a story about the adventures of three animal families, a majestic panda, a savvy golden monkey and an elusive snow leopard.

Chinese have also opened various restaurants chains in different cities in the name of the Pandas. Restaurant chains such as Panda Express and Panda Inn, also run in the U.S. Fast food chain Panda Express, which serves an American-Chinese cuisine, also plans to make an India entry in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore in partnership with Jay Singh and Sanjay Mahtani (JSM). China also launched a Giant Panda Festival to promote regional economy in 2016 and in 2017, China celebrated the 49th Chengdu International Panda Lantern Carnival in Sichuan Province.

With the world’s largest economy in PPP terms and growing assertiveness in its foreign policy, China is set to have a deep-rooted impact on the international order in the future. Its changing outlook in international communication and soft-power construction reflects China’s transformation from a “quiet achiever” to an “assertive player” at the world stage. During the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Xi Jinping stated that China would improve its capacity for engaging in International communication in order enhance the country’s soft power.

China’s reach across the globe has become more extensive, thus increasing the relevance of panda diplomacy to a whole new level. At the 19th Congress, Xi also noted that China’s economic policy should be improved for the progress of the cultural sector. This shows that pandas are not just about conversation but have become increasingly linked with economic and political ambitions.

Until today, Panda diplomacy has not been established between India and China. Perhaps, it is because there is yet to be a consolidation of trust between the two countries. It remains to be seen whether it is the inability of the pandas to adapt to Indian climate or whether political climate is the issue.

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