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  • Anna Rosciszewski

Is This The End of Panda Diplomacy?

They’re giant. They’re furry. They’re pandas, China’s most reliable and warmly accepted ambassadors to foreign countries. Historically, these 200-pound, human-shy bears have served as envoys of Chinese trust and cooperation with receiving countries. Panda diplomacy is a centuries-old Chinese practice which was officially dubbed “Panda Diplomacy”.

Panda Diplomacy began in the 7th century when China’s empress of the Tang Dynasty, Wu Zeitan, gifted Japan two pandas in an attempt to strengthen diplomatic relations. Centuries later, in 1942, it was revived and introduced to the United States as it entered World War II when China sent a pair of pandas to the Bronx Zoo in New York as a sign of support. During the 1950s, Mao Zedong frequently sent pandas to its communist allies, notably North Korea and the Soviet Union. In 1972, following 25 years of isolation between the United States and the People's Republic of China, the late Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, along with first lady Patricia Nixon, made a landmark “rapprochement” visit to China to reopen relations.

During a dinner between Chinese and American officials and probably as an attempt to ease awkwardness at the dinner table, First Lady Patricia Nixon told China's premier, Zhou Enlai, that she adored pandas. Consequently, as a show of warming relations with the United States, China, once again, sent its former foe a pair of giant panda bears who were named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The pair was kept at the Washington National Zoo until their unfortunate deaths and had five cubs together, of which, heartbreakingly for the panda-entranced American public, none survived more than a couple of days. Oddly enough, in return for their gift, China received a pair of musk oxen named Mathilda and Milton, which, for obvious reasons, did not evolve into a celebrated tradition between the two countries.

Credit: Federal Times, Jose Luis Magana for AP Photos

For the past 50 years, the presence of pandas in American zoos has continued to serve as a symbol of the ties between the United States and China. Following the tragedy of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, China sent two new panda specimens, Tian Tian and Mei Xian, who managed to have the first surviving panda cub born in the United States. This second wave of pandas was not gifted as a symbol of new friendship, but rather loaned to the United States as an instrument of strategic panda conservation in light of increasing concerns about their low birth rates and habitat loss due to climate change. Moreover, the birth of an American-born panda set off a national craze known as “Panda Mania”. However, despite widespread American love for Washington’s panda cub, China made sure to remind the United States of its veritable Chinese origins and ownership. The pandas’ original loan was only meant to last a decade, but was amended to twenty years following two consecutive extensions. However, the loan has not been renewed since its recent expiration.

As tensions between China and America rise, the continuation of modern panda diplomacy looks grim. Graham Allison, an esteemed  professor of the Harvard Kennedy School,  stresses in his book, Destined for War, that America and China are on a trajectory headed for imminent war, conforming to the telltale signs of Thucydides’s Trap, a theory which was first identified between Athens and Sparta in the midst of the Peloponnesian War. Allison describes that as China rises to become the world’s next global superpower, both American and Chinese politicians alike have begun to prepare for the risk of collision, which could very well stem from a dispute in the sphere of diplomacy. The current atmosphere surrounding America’s and China’s bilateral relations is reflected by recent actions involving China’s fluffy diplomats. On November 8th, 2023, the family of three panda bears left the Washington National Zoo and headed back to China on a special plane dubbed “The Panda Express”, which was equipped with plenty of bamboo and a score of personal attendants. Pandas have been consistently held at four institutions: The Memphis Zoo, The National Zoo, The San Diego Zoo, and The Atlanta Zoo. For the past couple of years, pandas held in the three zoos outside of the nation’s capital have been all gradually transported back to China.

The recent removal of the nation’s three most beloved pandas from Washington D.C has generated the most concern about the United States’ relations with China. China’s primary reasoning for drawing their pandas back to the mainland has been because of health implications. Understandably, Chinese citizens are infuriated when a panda dies on foreign land, perceiving it as a stab at their national pride. However, the increasing concerns of the United States’ and China’s strained trade relations and technological rivalry lead some to believe that these pandas’ removal has little to do with concerns about their health and more to do with long-brewing diplomatic strife.

The presence of panda diplomacy in the United States may have recently seen its end in 2023. Many “panda-maniacs” and regular Americans that have grown accustomed to the sight of pandas in their zoos will have to adjust to a reality void of these fluffy giants. Though sad, their removal indicates a frightening truth: the United States may soon go to war with China, an outcome that neither country wants but neither seems to be able to avoid. The end of a half century era of panda diplomacy is only one instance that demonstrates the deeply entrenched tension between the world’s current hegemons. So, next time you make the trip to the San Diego Zoo, make sure to stop by the empty panda enclosure and reminisce about a time of positive Sino-American relations. 


-What is panda diplomacy, and why are the bears going back to China?

-The End of Panda Diplomacy? 

-Panda Diplomacy Might Not Be Dead Just Yet

-Panda Diplomacy: The World’s Cutest Ambassadors

-The Value of Panda Diplomacy

-Pandas are the latest victims of tensions between the U.S. and China

-50 Years Later, Some Question Value of U.S.-China ‘Panda Diplomacy’

-Destined for War by Graham Allison

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