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Panda diplomacy draws to a close as US-China relations remain frosty

Tian Tian and Mei Xiang arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2000, taking the place of a pair of recently deceased pandas after their arrival in the United States in 1972. (The third missing panda, Xiao Qi Ji, was born to Mei in 2020.) Although American zoos had giant pandas in the early 20th century, the arrival of the first duo, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, sparked American panda fever. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong promised former President Richard Nixon these first pandas during the US leader’s groundbreaking visit to China.

At the time, pandas were a symbol of a new friendship between the two countries – a way for China, which hoped to integrate more with the rest of the world, to bring the United States closer to its flank.

But as the species became increasingly endangered, panda diplomacy evolved to better achieve conservation goals and serve China’s strategic interests. Since the 1980s, the government has given pandas to foreign zoos as short- and long-term scientific loans, subject to renegotiations with Chinese authorities and greater scrutiny from Chinese scientists over the treatment and care provided to their pandas.

Today, as China expands its network of influence across the globe that rivals the United States, continuing these partnerships with American zoos is producing diminishing returns on investment.

This panda rationing gives China the opportunity to increase the value of panda loans in the future and to “rethink and renegotiate the concept of what exactly these loans mean,” said E. Elena Songster, professor of history at St. Mary’s College of California and an expert in panda diplomacy.

“If (China) has fewer pandas, they will be even more prized and it will probably be able to negotiate more favorable terms when it comes to future deals,” Songster said.

There have been some bright spots in U.S.-China relations recently. The announcement of a meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping next week in San Francisco represents a breakthrough in a relationship that fractured earlier this year, mainly after a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the continental United States in February sparked national outrage. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s visit to China in October, which included a meeting with Xi, was accompanied by mostly positive state media coverage, hinting at a potential new crack in frosty relations.

But no new offer from the pandas, nor last-minute announcement of loan extensions, preceded or accompanied the meetings.

Pandas weren’t just a popular attraction in Washington. At the peak, 13 pandas were spread across four zoos: San Diego, Memphis, Atlanta and, most famously, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington. And the exodus isn’t just from the United States: Pandas are also leaving the United Kingdom, which has also descended into a more combative relationship with China over its treatment of Hong Kong, a former British colony.

With the end of Washington’s loan program, Atlanta became the last American zoo to host pandas, but not for much longer. Atlanta’s pandas are expected to return to China next year, and the zoo told POLITICO it has had no discussions with its Chinese partners about extending their presence.

The panda’s departure has nothing to do with a failure to care for the animals — although critics in China at one point accused U.S. zoos of mistreating some of their precious pandas. U.S. zoos, along with both governments, maintain that breeding and leasing programs have been successful, promoting conservation and cross-cultural goals.

“Many good results have been achieved in breeding, disease prevention and control, technical exchanges and public awareness,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “It has played a positive role in protecting endangered species and strengthening the friendship between the Chinese and American people.”

And panda diplomacy continues – albeit from a different angle. New pandas were sent to Qatar ahead of last year’s FIFA World Cup, potentially signaling China’s interests in the Middle East.

“Zoos don’t take this personally,” said Dan Ashe, director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former head of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is not a rejection of zoos or their ability to care for pandas. This reflects the state of relations between the United States and China.”

The first panda loan agreement with the United States lasted a decade and was renewed in 2010. In 2020, the Smithsonian National Zoo signed a temporary three-year extension of the agreement with Beijing. Perhaps aware of the panda exhibit’s ability to draw large crowds, the Washington Zoo is carrying out a $1.7 million renovation in hopes of welcoming more bears in the future, according to a Bloomberg report.

Brandie Smith, director of the Washington Zoo, speaking at a news conference Wednesday morning as the pandas prepared to leave, expressed hope that they would one day return.

“The future is bright for giant pandas,” Smith said. “We look forward to celebrating the return of pandas to Washington with you all.”

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