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Parsing China’s Panda Diplomacy

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Parsing China’s Panda Diplomacy

Beijing seems less inclined to loan the famous bears to countries that criticize its behavior. So why did Xi Jinping decide to give pandas back to the U.S.?

Parsing China’s Panda Diplomacy
Credit: Photo 105907574 © Jim Lawrence |

Recent foreign policy reporting has spent what might seem to be an absurd amount of time talking about pandas. In November, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. returned its pandas to China after more than 50 years of hosting the bears in the U.S. capital. The four remaining pandas in the United States – all at the Atlanta Zoo – are also slated to return to China sometime this year. This would have left the U.S. without any of the furry giants for the first time since 1972

Fortunately, a week after the trio of bears left the National Zoo, American panda-lovers received good news. Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco, announced that China would send new pandas to the United States. “We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi declared. It has since been confirmed that the pandas will come to the San Diego Zoo. 

This 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. This action, along with the surprisingly cordial tone of the summit, marked a notable shift in Xi’s approach to the China-U.S. relationship. The two nations have spent the last decade increasingly ratcheting up their rhetoric, trade conflicts, and technological competition. Xi’s decision 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.

American zoos began losing their pandas in April 2019, with the Memphis Zoo’s pair of pandas leaving after 20 years in residence. The San Diego zoo offered a heartfelt goodbye to its final two pandas in the same month, ending 25 years of its involvement in the panda conservation program. As mentioned above, the National Zoo in Washington bid farewell to its three giant pandas in November 2023.

Similarly, the Edinburgh Zoo in the United Kingdom lost its resident pandas in December 2023. Australia will see their remaining pandas leave the Adelaide Zoo in early 2024. Japanese panda lovers were especially tearful as they finally said goodbye to XiangXiang, a Tokyo-born panda who had become extremely popular following her birth in 2017. XiangXiang returned to the Chinese panda reserve in Sichuan in February 2023, as did three more of Japan’s pandas who were living at a park outside of Osaka. 

As of today, there is no indication that the Chinese government is willing to extend any of the loans. None of these countries has received a promise that China will send them new pandas – except for the United States.

Panda diplomacy established itself as a unique form of diplomacy during World War II. Soong Mei-ling, then first lady of the Republic of China, gifted two pandas to the United States in November of 1941 as thanks for supporting China during the war against Japan. In 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed victory and the Kuomintang (KMT) led by President Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party gained sole control over the world’s supply of wild pandas. During the Mao era, the People’s Republic of China gave 24 pandas as gifts to nine nations, most notably including the pair of pandas given by Mao to the United States following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit. In contrast to today, these were true gifts, with no expiration date.

When Deng Xiaoping took power in China, one of the policy changes he implemented was the end of gifting pandas. Any new pandas would instead be leased, with agreements structured so that any offspring born to pandas abroad would also be required to return to China. This change marked the switch from pandas being a gift to being part of a quid pro quo. However, there was still a broad understanding that pandas were a valuable soft power tool, and Deng continued to loan pandas to nations that China wished to improve relations with. 

While pandas were a great asset for Chinese diplomacy during the era of reform and opening, the recent turn toward a more aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy under Xi may explain why China refused to continue sharing its national animal with the world. Wolf warrior diplomacy has become the shorthand term to refer to a more combative form of diplomacy that grew in popularity after Xi took power in 2012. Examples include Chinese diplomats publicly insulting foreign leaders, abruptly leaving meetings, issuing personal threats, or shouting at foreign diplomats. 

Peter Martin, author of “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” pointed to the feeling among Chinese political elites that the “Century of Humiliation” (a period of roughly a hundred years in which China was repeatedly invaded by Japan and Western nations) is over and China is now ascendent in order to explain this more brazen form of Chinese diplomacy. 

It is also apparent that Chinese diplomats who engage in wolf warrior diplomacy can quickly be promoted up the political hierarchy, as Xi and other party elites seem to be fans of this more aggressive style of foreign relations. Chinese diplomats today often seem to be performing more for a domestic political audience than they are actually endeavoring to improve relations. 

So how did panda diplomacy mesh with wolf warrior diplomacy? The answer might be found in understanding what panda diplomacy is today, and what it is not. Are pandas given as gifts in order to engender positive views of China in chosen nations, are they a real bargaining tool in the Chinese diplomatic arsenal, or are they something else? 

In recent years it seems that China’s panda policy has shifted. Steve Tsang, head of the China Institute at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, described the recent change in a Washington Post article, saying, “China now requires countries that have been given the privilege of hosting pandas to be friendly to China, and if they’re not doing so sufficiently, then pandas will be withdrawn.” 

For example, in 2017 a zoo in Finland was offered two panda bears after Finnish President Sauli Niinisto confirmed that his nation would adhere to the One China policy. As another example, the two pandas that departed the United Kingdom in 2023 were originally loaned to Edinburgh in 2011 as the capstone marking the signing of an oil deal between the two countries. 

Additionally, the ceremony attached to panda diplomacy has signaled that Xi expects more commitment from countries that wish to receive pandas. World leaders are expected to make the request for pandas in person, and frequently are required to pose for photos with Xi during the ceremony marking the arrival of the pandas to their new home. These actions and requirements all demonstrate how Xi sees China’s pandas as a tool to extract what he wants from Western leaders. 

So why is the United States getting more pandas when other nations that have had a rocky relationship with China as of late are still losing theirs? By contrast, when Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited China in November 2023, he and Xi discussed the topic of pandas at a state dinner marking the first visit by an Australian leader to China in seven years. The visit came at the end of a long process and series of agreements that have the goal of repairing and stabilizing the Sino-Australian relationship. 

Nevertheless, despite Albanese saying “I would on behalf of Australia’s kids and families like to see pandas maintain a presence in Australia,” China has not signaled that Australia is guaranteed to receive any new pandas. Talks with the Adelaide Zoo are still ongoing, although zoo representatives and Australian government officials remain hopeful. 

Something must be unique about the United States in the eyes of China. 

While the summit in San Francisco was a major improvement for China-U.S. relations, the relationship is still highly combative and fraught with disagreements. At the Biden-Xi summit, the pair of leaders agreed to cooperate on artificial intelligence safety and anti-drug efforts, as well as to establish more direct lines of communication between military leaders designed to prevent miscommunications and conflict escalation. However, the pair still had many points of disagreement. 

For example, Xi criticized U.S. export controls in the ongoing semiconductor battle, wherein the Biden administration has worked to block China from developing or importing advanced processors. In doing so, Biden has demonstrated the United States’ unique ability to significantly slow Chinese technology development. While the previous trade war begun under the Trump administration was largely seen by experts as hurting U.S. consumers more than Chinese industry, the Biden administration has reminded Xi that there can be real and tangible consequences to antagonizing the United States.

Another hint at why Xi sees the China-U.S. relationship as so important lies in the greatest sticking point during the summit: the Taiwan question. Xi took a pointedly hard line even during a summit designed to improve tensions, telling Biden and the U.S. delegation that China was committed to unifying the island. Chinese officials told reporters that Xi had asked Biden to “stop arming Taiwan, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and take real actions to honor U.S. commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence.’” 

Biden has signaled several times that the United States will defend Taiwan if China decides to attack, and U.S. support for Taiwan is the single largest obstacle to Xi achieving the greatest foreign policy victory for a Chinese leader in contemporary history. It is clear that Xi has learned from the struggles of Russia in Ukraine, where U.S. weapons and funding have been crucial for the Ukrainian war effort. This will be even more true in Taiwan, which has far fewer allies than Ukraine. If the United States is unwilling to aid in Taiwan’s defense, it is likely that nobody will. 

Biden has been aggressive in his signals that he supports Taiwan. While the State Department continues to walk back what he says, Biden has repeatedly said that the United States will use military force to defend the island nation if China attacks. Additionally, he has drifted from longstanding U.S. policy regarding Taiwanese independence, saying, “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence…that’s their decision.” 

Finally, Biden has put a lot of effort into strengthening American alliances in Asia, which all have the goal of combating China’s regional influence. After four years of isolationism under Trump, the assertiveness of Biden is likely forcing Xi to reevaluate the likelihood that China can retake Taiwan without the U.S.  military – and its regional allies – getting involved.

The final piece of the puzzle is the Chinese domestic situation. Xi’s administration – beginning in 2012 – has benefited from a strong and consistently growing economy. However, today Xi is dealing with a post-COVID economy that is continuing to struggle, punctuated with crises like the still-ongoing housing bubble and the looming demographic issues. While Xi entered office brazen and full of confidence that he would make China a global superpower, a true rival to the United States, he now seems to have had his confidence shaken. 

In that light, a couple of adorable pandas are signals that Xi is no longer quite so interested in competing with the United States directly. What may seem to be a relatively inconsequential gift is instead signaling that we are entering a new era of China-U.S. relations, where a previously brazen and outspoken Xi is looking to be slightly less confrontational. Time will tell if this trend holds, but it is a promising development amidst a decade of continuing escalations and increasing tensions.