China's Panda Diplomacy Has Entered A Lucrative New Phase

Giant panda bear bambooREUTERS/Mike BlakeGiant Panda mother Bai Yun snacks on bamboo as her cub Xiao Liwi is shown for the first time on public display at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, January 10, 2013.

If you want to know where relations stand between China and another country, follow the pandas.

China, the only native of home of pandas in the world, has been giving pandas to nations based on beneficial trade agreements and their willingness to depart with crucial natural resources, according to a new study done by Oxford University.

This represents a new phase of a longstanding practice, according to the researchers:

Phase 1 during the Mao era (in the 1960s and 1970s) took the form of China gifting pandas to build strategic friendships. Phase 2 followed Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978 when gifts became gift loans involving a capitalist lease model based on financial transactions. In the emerging phase 3, panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and technology and symbolise China’s willingness to build guanxi — namely, deep trade relationships characterised by trust, reciprocity, loyalty, and longevity.

The study reports that, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake destroyed 23% of China’s panda habitats, there was a renewed need to loan out pandas to help pay for conservation efforts. In addition, significant damage to the Wolong Nature Reserve and Breeding Center meant there were 60 pandas that needed to be rehoused. Chinese authorities saw the rehousing need as an opportunity to raise conservation funds while building relationships with nations that China wants in their “inner circle.”

China loaned pandas to Canada and France after those countries signed multibillion dollar deals to export large quantities of uranium to China over the next decade. Pandas were sent to Japan and Australia after other major trade agreements.

Likewise, in 2011, China’s deputy premier negotiated two concurrent deals with Scotland. The first was for a $US4 billion contract to supply China with salmon meat, Land Rover cars, and petrochemical and renewable energy technology. The second was to bring two giant pandas to the Edinburgh Zoo.

Dr. Kathleen Buckingham, the lead author on the study, was blunt about China’s strategy.

“Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn’t? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in,” said Buckingham. “Recipient countries need to assess the broader environmental consequences of ‘sealing the deal’ with China before accepting panda loans, as these usually signal that China expects a long-term commitment to deliver the goods — whether they be uranium, salmon, or other natural resources.”

The trend isn’t isolated to resource deals either. In the following chart, you can see the correlation between China’s recent free trade agreements and countries they’ve loaned pandas to:

And what China gives, it can also take away. In 2010, Two days after the U.S. decided to go forward with a meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, against the wishes of the Chinese government, China forced the return of two U.S.-born panda cubs.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government played the panda card with Austria, threatening not to sign a new panda lease deal if the Austrian government didn’t cancel a scheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama.

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