May 3, 2005

Panda Diplomacy — China’s Foreign Policy Weapon

BEIJING (AFP) - Big, clumsy and unable to speak any foreign language, pandas would not appear to make great diplomats -- but that has not prevented them playing a starring role in Chinese foreign policy.

China wrote another chapter in the history of panda diplomacy Tuesday, when it announced its willingness to present two giant pandas to Taiwan as a goodwill gesture.

The move, timed to coincide with the departure of Taiwan opposition leader Lien Chan after an eight-day visit, echoed earlier Cold War attempts to use the rare mammals to break the ice with arch enemies.

The most famous example was China's donation of the pandas Lingling and Xingxing to the United States in 1972 at the start of a detente with the United States.

In the period from 1957 to 1982, China sent a total of 23 pandas abroad to nine different countries, including the Soviet Union,     North Korea and France, according to the state-run Oriental Outlook magazine.

However, it was not just China's Communist rulers who recognized the diplomatic value of the country's most famous animal.

According to ancient records, Tang-Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian (624 to 705 AD) presented two pandas to the Japanese court.

Despite China's willingness to give away its pandas, the animal remains among the most endangered species in the world.

There are only about 1,590 pandas living in the wild, all in China, although the numbers have risen steadily in the past decade after falling to around 1,100 in the 1980s.