China to send two young giant pandas to Washington later this year

FILE PHOTO: Illustration shows U.S. and Chinese flags

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -China will send two young giant pandas to Washington, the United States' National Zoo said on Wednesday, months after the zoo returned three of the bears amid heightened tensions between the two global superpowers.

The announcement follows increased engagement between Washington and Beijing that has put ties on a steadier footing since relations hit historic lows last year.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo said in a statement that it will welcome the pair of pandas, named Bao Li and Qing Bao, to Washington by the end of the year.

China's ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng, speaking to press at the zoo, encouraged people to "care for China-U.S. relations just as you care for pandas."

"For the wellbeing of both peoples and the future of the world, China and the United States should choose to be partners, not rivals. Panda huggers should not be stigmatized. If there should be any protectionism, then let us protect biodiversity," Xie said.

Brandie Smith, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI), said the institute was thrilled about the continuation of the breeding and conservation partnership, noting that one of the bears is a descendent of pandas previously in Washington.

"This historic moment is proof positive our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact," Smith said.

Bao Li is a two-year-old male. His mother was born at the institute in 2013 and his grandparents Tian and Mei Xiang lived at NZCBI from 2000 to 2023. Qing Bao is a two-year-old female born to Qing Qing and mother Jia Mei.

Once they arrive, the pair of pandas will be quarantined for 30 days and then have a few more weeks to settle into their new habitat, the zoo said. A public debut date has yet to be set.

The departure of the three pandas from the zoo last November as loan agreements lapsed left Georgia's Zoo Atlanta as the only one in the U.S. with giant pandas, and that loan deal is set to expire later this year. San Diego Zoo is also set to welcome another two pandas.

Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted that he was open to sending more of the "envoys of friendship" to the U.S. after meeting President Joe Biden in November in California, where the two men agreed to step up communication despite an intensifying geopolitical rivalry.

Xi's remarks prompted the White House to say at the time that the U.S. would "absolutely welcome" the bears.

China's communist government has long used "panda diplomacy" to enhance the country's soft power, lending the large but cuddly-looking black-and-white bears to zoos in various countries over the decades as goodwill animal ambassadors.

Wednesday's announcement is a clear signal of Beijing's approval of stabilized ties with Washington. Xie told Reuters after the event that the new panda cooperation agreement was "a very good sign" for U.S.-China relations.

Beijing presented two giant pandas as gifts to the U.S. in 1972 after President Richard Nixon's historic Cold War visit to the country.

Other pandas have since been loaned to the U.S. for research and educational purposes, and the bears have perennially been a top attraction at zoos, drawing millions of adoring visitors.

(Reporting by Michael Martina in Washington and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Chizu Nomiyama)