Animal IQ

Panda Diplomacy Is The World's Cutest Form Of International Trade Negotiation

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Every country has its claim to fame. Italy has shoes and sportscars. Canada has maple syrup and hockey players. And China, of course, has pandas. The adorable black-and-white fuzzballs are native to China, and the country doesn't take that lightly. In fact, since the 1950s, it has used the animals in an unusual form of international negotiation many call "panda diplomacy."

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Two Pandas? That'll Be Two Musk Oxen, Please.

The Chinese government has used pandas in diplomatic gestures since the 1950s, and continues to this day. At first, the pandas were given as gifts, but after the animals were put on the endangered species list in 1984, China began loaning them in a sort of "rent-a-panda" setup. And it does this a lot. As Gizmodo puts it, "China owns all the pandas. If you've got some pandas at your local zoo, they're probably on loan." In 2010, for instance, China loaned Scotland a pair of the animals as thanks for a $4 billion trade deal to export Scottish salmon and Land Rovers to China. According to The Guardian, Canada and Australia have pandas on loan after successful uranium, oil, and mineral negotiations; France got some after a nuclear deal; and Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Macao got some pandas after signing free-trade agreements with China.

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One of the most famous examples of this adorable diplomacy took place between the Chinese and U.S. governments during the Cold War. During President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking trip to the communist People's Republic of China in 1972, the two countries agreed to trade a pair of American musk oxen for a pair of China's pandas. This was front-page news—before this agreement, the U.S. hadn't had a giant panda for over twenty years. The pandas were named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, and they found a new home in the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

No Such Thing As A Free Panda

Given as thanks or not, the pandas don't come cheap. China charges £600,000 a year for a country to house a pair of pandas, according to The Guardian—that's nearly a million U.S. dollars. They also own any offspring. This means they can take the pandas back, which is exactly what they did with the panda cub Tai Shan at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., not coincidentally after Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama and the U.S. sold weapons to Taiwan.

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Today, the money China takes in for loaning their pandas goes toward saving the endangered animals. Still, conservationists aren't so sure panda diplomacy is the best idea. Breeding pandas in captivity hasn't led to enough pandas introduced into the wild to ensure their survival, and not many of those that were released have survived. That leaves the question of how using the animals in political dealings affects their long-term survival. There's no right answer, and the debate rages on.

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