Panda Diplomacy: China Recalls Effective Soft Power Tools from the United States

By Matthew McMullan
Nov 13 2023 |
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Maybe President Biden will trade to get a couple of ’em back when he meets Xi Jinping? Probably not.

Bad news for the panda-stans in the Washington DC area: There are no more pandas at the National Zoo. China has recalled its pandas. And so they were quite literally shipped back via FedEx last week.

There are now only four Pandas left in the United States; all in an Atlanta zoo. But those will be going back to China soon, too. Pandas are only native to China, and under the terms of “panda diplomacy” practiced by the People’s Republic of China, they are only loaned, and any panda cubs born while their parents are on loan are considered Chinese property too. The National Zoo pandas’ lease was up. The Chinese government didn’t want to renew it. So off they went.  

Personally, I’m not a big panda guy. I’ve been to the National Zoo a handful of times, and I prefer checking out the prairie dogs or smelling the ape house to crowding around the panda enclosure to maybe get a look at what I will definitively say were always among the laziest in a whole park full of caged animals.

But that’s the story here: There was always a crowd, because pandas are a draw.

Gifts of animals between governments is a real thing. Indonesia, for example, once gave President George HW Bush a Komodo dragon, which he quietly passed off to the Cincinnati Zoo, because you aren’t gonna get a crowd of American children gathered around a zoo exhibit to watch one of those things wolf down a mule deer. Panda diplomacy, on the other hand, is a real thing the Chinese government can use; a kind and cuddly face that can stand in for a state whose name is mud in American politics right now. Their loan is considered an honest demonstration of soft power, and those loans are extended to countries that have a large GDP and with which the PRC does a large volume of trade, according to a research paper on the subject prepared by the American Enterprise Institute.

“Panda diplomacy provides a momentary injection of goodwill and often coincides with major diplomatic events and trade deals,” writes the report’s author. As such, they note, the Chinese government leased a lot of pandas at the height of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Still, “panda diplomacy is a limited tool, and it cannot sustain positive relations between China and panda host countries in the longer term,” concludes the report.

That’s because the animals themselves aren’t bargaining chips, explained Barbara K. Bodine, a Georgetown University academic and former U.S. ambassador, in a recent interview. Rather, they are the “seal that goes on top of any deal.”

She explains:

It’s very important here to distinguish between symbolism and bargaining. No government — at least no sane government — would trade foreign policy interests for pandas. But they are an inducement tool to encourage negotiations in whatever issue area concerns China at the time.

However, it is possible the lack of renewal reflects the tense state of relations between China and the West: you have trade and export controls, tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, emissions commitments and the list goes on. Pandas have been recalled before – usually under the pretext of animal welfare and conservation – conveniently when that country has offended China in some way.

With all of the issues she listed in mind, Amb. Bodine does not believe that a return of Pandas to the zoo in DC is a likely outcome of the upcoming meeting in San Francisco between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Given that scheduling a meeting between the two leaders is proving difficult, an outcome good enough to induce the pandas’ return is quite unlikely at this stage,” she said.

China is an economic competitor to the United States, and there are lots of unresolved issues affecting the bilateral economic relationship – so many that it would probably be alarming if Xi left his meeting with President Biden so pleased that he immediately FedExes those bears back to DC. That’s a bummer for America’s panda lovers, but it’s probably for the best.