China Resumes Panda Diplomacy With Two Bears Headed to DC

(Bloomberg) -- Pandas are returning to Washington’s National Zoo, the latest sign that China is reversing course after it took back all the bears on loan to the US.

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China will send a new pair of pandas, two-year-olds Bao Li and Qing Bao, to Washington by the end of the year, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo said Wednesday. The pandas will stay through April 2034 and, in keeping with past agreements, the bears and any offspring they produce will remain China’s property.

A previous set of pandas left Washington in November after the US and China failed to renew an agreement for them to stay. Their absence marked the first time the National Zoo has been without the bears since 1972, when a pair of pandas was loaned as a gift from Beijing to commemorate President Richard Nixon’s visit.

The two sides’ failure to renew their deal had fanned speculation that China was ending its so-called panda diplomacy after similar deals expired with zoos in Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego. Although both sides denied politics were at play, the loss of America’s pandas coincided with a drastic worsening of ties.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at a summit with President Joe Biden last year that more pandas would arrive in the US, part of a broader pitch to improve relations and revive flagging foreign investment. Xi noted the departure of the pandas from the National Zoo, saying he was told that “many American people — especially children — were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the zoo to see them off.”

In April, the San Diego Zoo announced it was getting new pandas four years after they left.

The male panda included in the latest loan to Washington, Bao Li, has roots in the city. His mother, Bao Bao, was born at the National Zoo in 2013.

The National Zoo heralded the new agreement with an announcement that featured First Lady Jill Biden.

“China played a rather cynical game when it took the pandas away from all American zoos without a willingness to negotiate new agreements,” said Dennis Wilder, a former White House and Central Intelligence Agency expert on China now at Georgetown University. “This turnaround in Chinese policy demonstrates that Beijing knows it must find ways to reach the American people in a more positive vein.”

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