Better Than Ping Pong: Panda Diplomacy Builds Relationships
Cute bears involved in uranium sales and free-trade agreements
A new study from Oxford University holds that the 50 something giant pandas on loan around the world are aimed at building ‘guanxi’ or deep, long-lasting relationships in exchange for “trades and foreign-investment deals.”
Australia, France, and most recently Canada received panda loans when uranium deals were struck with the Chinese regime. Panda transactions also took place with Asian nations like Malaysia and Thailand as part of free-trade agreements.
Published in the journal Environmental Practice, the study points to an emergent third phase in the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy of gifting and loaning pandas, whereby countries with important resources and technology can lease the black and white bears for a hefty fee. This new pattern appears to be related to the 2008 earthquake that struck Sichuan Province and damaged the Wolong Breeding Center, meaning that the 60 pandas there needed rehousing.
In phase one, during Mao Zedong’s era in the 1960s and 1970s, pandas were gifted to build strategic friendships. During Deng Xiaoping’s regime, starting in 1978, phase two involved loaning the bears in a capitalist lease model based on financial transactions.
The researchers predict an increase in the third phase of panda diplomacy with the renewal of captive breeding, now that the Wolong Breeding Center has been repaired.
“From a Chinese perspective, sharing the care of such a precious animal strengthens the bonds that China has with its ‘inner circle’ of countries,” said study lead author Kathleen Buckingham, according to a press release. “Panda loans are not simply part of a larger deal; rather they represent a ‘seal’ of approval and intent for a long and prosperous working relationship … “
The study mentions a pair of pandas received by Edinburgh Zoo in 2011, when the Chinese regime’s then deputy premier negotiated contracts worth £2.6 billion (nearly $4.2 billion) for salmon, petrochemical and renewable energy technology, and Land Rovers.
“Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn’t? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in,” Buckingham continued. “Recipient countries need to assess the broader environmental consequences of ‘sealing the deal’ with China before accepting panda loans, as these usually signal that China expects a long-term commitment to deliver the goods–whether they be uranium, salmon or other natural resources.”
As well as forming a ‘seal of approval,’ the bears can be recalled to express disapproval, the researchers believe. For example, two cubs born in the United States were contracted to go back to China in 2010, but were reclaimed only two days after Barack Obama was warned by Beijing not to meet with the Dalai Lama.
“The panda has long symbolized western efforts to conserve wildlife internationally,” said research leader Paul Jepson, according to the release. “However this latest phase of panda diplomacy suggests that China is reclaiming the soft power embodied in the panda as both emblem and living animal.”
“As a result the political, trade, economic, and cultural imperatives of China may come to more explicitly shape strategies to protect and restore wild panda populations,” he concluded.