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Panda diplomacy: China woos tech industry by sending bears to California

Xiao Qi Ji, 9-month old male giant panda cub plays in a tree at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2021. The cub was sent back to China last November. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI
Xiao Qi Ji, 9-month old male giant panda cub plays in a tree at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2021. The cub was sent back to China last November. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI

March 1 (UPI) -- A deal was signed between the San Diego Zoo and China's Wildlife Conservation Association in February that paved the way for Chinese giant pandas to return to the United States by the end of the summer.

But this is far more than just a deal between two zoos. It suggests a warming of relations between the United States and China, and a bid by China to help repair its struggling economy.

For decades, China has used panda diplomacy, where Beijing gave or loaned its pandas as a sign of friendship or to strengthen national ties, to establish a good long-term relationship with other countries. However, in 2023, when China withdrew its giant pandas from the Smithsonian zoo in Washington, this seemed to symbolize how rocky the China-U.S. relationship had become.

Two pandas were given as a gift to the United States after President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, and this was seen as a major breakthrough in modern U.S.-China relations. From the 1990s on, panda diplomacy was transformed into a long-term program involving conservation and scientific study.

Panda diplomacy is part of what is called "soft power," how nations use their culture or heritage to influence another country's foreign policy. Pandas are soft and cuddly, and have what it takes to win hearts and minds. So, the pandas became part of an attractive part of China's international image.

Mei Xiang, 22-year-old female giant panda, eats bamboo at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2021. She was sent back to China last November. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI
Mei Xiang, 22-year-old female giant panda, eats bamboo at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2021. She was sent back to China last November. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI

By sending these pandas to the United States, Beijing intends to woo the American public, but also more specifically, California, the home of the U.S. technology industry.

One reason for this is that Beijing needs to jump-start its ailing economy. Foreign investment in China was lackluster in 2022. But between July and September 2023 things got a lot worse, as foreign direct investment leaving the country outweighed that coming in. This had not happened since 1998.

Mei Xiang enters the outside area at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI
Mei Xiang enters the outside area at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI

A main reason for this drop in foreign investment stems from U.S. restrictions on exports of semiconductor technology to China. This is related to U.S. concerns that the chips could be used by China for military objectives. To turn the economic tide, China needs to repair its trade relationship with the United States, and possibly get the U.S. government to change its policy.

The two giant pandas are headed for California, home to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, currently the world's centers for artificial intelligence development.

Panda cub Bao Bao is seen in its habitat on her first birthday at the National Zoo in Washington on August 23, 2014. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Panda cub Bao Bao is seen in its habitat on her first birthday at the National Zoo in Washington on August 23, 2014. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

The potential of this technology is important for China. As well as the potential to add $600 billion to the Chinese economy by 2030, it could provide an edge for China's powerful military.

To become a world leader of artificial intelligence by 2030, China needs talent and technological know-how. But China's ability to enhance its artificial intelligence capacity through domestic talent is constrained by an education system steeped in rote learning.

Tian Tian eats grass during a naming ceremony for his son, Tai Shan, at the National Zoological Park in Washington on October 17 2005. Tian Tian, who was returned to China last November, is also the father of Xiao Qi Ji. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Tian Tian eats grass during a naming ceremony for his son, Tai Shan, at the National Zoological Park in Washington on October 17 2005. Tian Tian, who was returned to China last November, is also the father of Xiao Qi Ji. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

Beijing's redeployment of pandas dials up the diplomatic goodwill several notches, signaling Beijing's seriousness in improving links with Washington. After all, the pandas represent China's seal of approval toward a foreign nation, and this move typically signals a plan to build a long, prosperous working relationship.

The Smithsonian's zoo, arguably the birthplace of panda diplomacy in the West, had been home to giant pandas since 1972. It was from Nov. 8, 2023, that the zoo lost its giant pandas for the first time in more than 50 years, when Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their offspring, Xiao Qi Ji, were flown back to China.

Tian Tian (R) munches on bamboo while Mei Xiang takes a nap inside the giant pandas' indoor habitat at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2000. File Photo by Jessie Cohen/UPI
Tian Tian (R) munches on bamboo while Mei Xiang takes a nap inside the giant pandas' indoor habitat at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in 2000. File Photo by Jessie Cohen/UPI

At that point, there were suggestions that panda diplomacy was over as tensions between the United States and China had risen significantly. Relations between U.S. and Chinese businesses also seemed to be getting worse. A survey by the U.S.-China Business Council of its members in 2023 found that 34% had stopped or reduced planned investment in China over the previous 12 months.

But later in November, China's President Xi Jinping held a four-hour summit with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco and signaled that there was potential for rapprochement. Xi said that, in a world of challenges, the United States and China "must handle our relations well." Xi alluded to the pandas' popularity with Americans.

He added that China is "ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation," and added that China will "do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples."

Xi also set up a dinner with hundreds of tech executives, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, and business leaders on the sidelines of the APEC meeting. So it would seem logical that Beijing has decided to send its national treasures to California to signal the state's importance to the Asian superpower.

It looks like Beijing's willingness to send its bears back to the United States is part of a strategy to improve not only its political relationship with Biden, but, perhaps more importantly, to help bring back U.S. investment and reframe Beijing as a friendlier trading power.

Chee Meng Tan is an assistant professor of business economics at the University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.