Pandas Bring New Meaning To The Term ‘Soft Power’ In Modern China

International diplomacy can be extremely complex, varying hugely from country to country, involving a mixture of compromise, favours and pride. No example makes this quite so clear as China’s so-called “panda diplomacy“. Within the last century, China’s most cuddly face has been used in a distinctive manner to advance the republic’s international image and trade agreements. Pandas are unique to the PRC, something China takes full advantage of by using its monopoly to restrict and control global supply.

Fundamentally, panda diplomacy is a form of soft power — one that captures the public eye due to its adorable furry features. Soft power is often used as a more persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence to shape their long-term attitudes and preferences.

Panda diplomacy has been ongoing since the twentieth century, but can be split into separate phases that are often connected to the country’s ongoing political climate. The first phase was marked by gifting — the giving of the animal, usually in pairs, took place between China and its allies. The PRC, led at that point by Mao, gifted 23 pandas to allies such as the United States, the UK and the USSR between 1957 and 1972. It was in 1972 that Nixon was gifted two pandas to sweeten relations between the US and China, coinciding with the PRC officially being recognised over the ROC by the UN.

The second phase is one that contemporary readers are probably more familiar with: rental. After Mao’s death in 1976, Xiaoping developed a new form of panda diplomacy, one that would enable China to ensure its monopoly over the species. The Chinese government rented out pandas for a maximum of 10 years at a fee of £600,000. This meant that not only would the pandas remain the property of China, but so would any cubs born. China retained the right to call back their “property” at any times, meaning a country would have to stick to their side of the bargain in order to keep the animals. This change in panda policy has often been linked to the supposed “opening” of the country that took place after Mao’s death. By opening up pandas for rental by any country, China opened itself to new trade possibilities, and new allies, that were previously left unexplored.

The final phase, thus far, appears to be exclusivity. Pandas are only offered to nations who can provide valuable resources to the PRC, and have become symbols of a strong trading relationship with the country. The use of a panda mascot at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was no coincidence. The panda has become an integral part of China’s image to every one of its allies. The UK’s Edinburgh Zoo currently has two panda, Tian Tian (meaning Sweetie) and Yang Guang (meaning Sunshine), due to China’s interest in Scottish salmon. On the other hand, two US-born panda cubs were flown to China after President Obama met with the Dalai Lama in 2010, a prominent enemy of the Chinese government.

Undeniably, then, the panda population’s developing role in Chinese foreign diplomacy is a form of soft power — pun fully intended.

Photo: playlight55 on Flickr

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