What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word diplomat? You would probably imagine a person wearing a sleek outfit, onboard a private jet and sipping on a cup of expensive coffee. While that itself is already a common misconception on what a diplomat is, what if we told you that diplomats aren’t always human? Sometimes, they come in the form of cute and cuddly pandas.
Everybody knows what pandas are. They are widely adored and have become somewhat of a cultural icon, but despite the fact that they can be found in 26 zoos around the world, they’re only native to South Central China. Because of their scarcity and popularity, pandas therefore also serve as powerful diplomatic tools for China to foster good relations with other countries. The earliest instance of “panda diplomacy” dates back to the Tang Dynasty, when empress Wu Zeitian gifted a pair of pandas to Emperor Tenmu of Japan. The practice was later revived in 1941, when Song Meiling (the wife of Taiwan founder Chiang Kai Shek) gifted two pandas to the Bronx Zoo to thank the Americans for their aid in the war effort. In the 1950s, Mao Zedong also began gifting pandas to China’s communist allies such as North Korea and Russia to strengthen their diplomatic ties.
Despite these recorded instances of panda diplomacy, the practice didn’t become popular until the Cold War, when US President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and managed to secure a deal with Mao Zedong for two pandas to be sent to an American zoo. The pandas ended up being a big hit with the Americans, and the deal was later declared a diplomatic success because it proved that China was eager to establish official relations with the US.
The provisions for panda diplomacy changed in 1984, when pandas started to become endangered. Instead of gifting pandas to other countries, China would now only loan them for a ten-year term with an annual fee equivalent to one million US dollars. In addition, all pandas born within the loan period will still belong to China. A lot of countries were willing to pay the price because of how profitable pandas proved to be, and this is how pandas eventually became China’s soft power.
Aside from using pandas as a tool for fostering good relations, China can also take back pandas the same way other countries might call back diplomats or impose economic sanctions when relations turn sour. A notable example is when Austria welcomed the Dalai Lama for a state visit in 2013. The Dalai Lama is a known critic of the Chinese government, so in response, China threatened to take back the panda from Austria, which led to Austria reasserting the One-China Policy. On a similar note, China can also use pandas as a way of furthering trade negotiations for valuable resources, as seen with how they managed to secure a deal with Scotland for salmon, renewable energy technology, and Land Rover vehicles in exchange for a panda.
Pandas may have started out as a gift between two friendly countries, but they now play a bigger role in China’s foreign policy. This technically makes them China’s diplomats, and they might even be the most effective diplomats in the world considering that they do nothing but sleep and chew on bamboo all day. It must be nice to have their jobs, but who are we kidding? We’ll need to be as cute and irresistible as pandas.