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In a new round of ‘panda diplomacy,’ China sends giant bears to the U.S. after two decades

Giant pandas eating bamboo at Bifengxia Panda Base in Sichuan, China.

Christophe Boisvieux | The Image Bank | Getty Images

For the first time in more than two decades, giant pandas are en route from China to a San Diego zoo in the U.S. — a sign that Beijing is resuming its so-called “panda diplomacy” efforts as relations with the West thaw.

Four-year-old Yun Chuan, a male panda, and Xin Bao, a female panda who’s turning four in July, departed from Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, in China’s Sichuan province on Wednesday.

The pair will reside at the San Diego Zoo for the next 10 years, according to a press release from the zoo.

San Diego mayor Todd Gloria visited the Chinese facility on Wednesday to celebrate the pandas’ departure before welcoming them to his city. Delegates from both countries were in attendance as well.

“I’m honored to have been invited to join in the farewell ceremonies in China for Yun Chuan and Xin Bao,” the mayor said on X. “This is a historic conservation partnership that will help protect these magnificent creatures and their habitat.”

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance President and CEO Paul Baribault said the farewell ceremony “celebrates their journey and underscores a collaboration between the United States and China on vital conservation efforts.”

The pandas were accompanied by caretakers and veterinarians from both China and the U.S., including Americans who visited China earlier and “got to know the pandas well,” Huang Shan, a giant panda caretaker at the Ya’an facility told NBC News.

The Chinese team will spend about three months in San Diego to help the pandas settle in, state media China Daily said.

The bears will take time to acclimatize and won’t be allowed to meet the public immediately, the zoo highlighted.

The San Diego Zoo was the first in the U.S. to have a cooperative panda conservation program, which aims to improve the health and resilience of giant pandas — a species that’s vulnerable to extinction.

Yun Chua, the male panda, is the son of Zhen Zhen, who was born at San Diego Zoo in 2007.

The zoo has not had residing pandas since 2019, after a 27-year-old female giant panda, Bai Yun, and her 6-year-old son, Xiao Liwu, returned to China. The zoo pledged at that time to continue its conservation efforts.

Panda diplomacy

For decades, China has used “panda diplomacy” to project Chinese soft power and ease tensions with the U.S.

Last year, China recalled three giant pandas that were loaned to the U.S. who were residing at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington as tensions with Washington flared.

Four others in Zoo Atlanta are expected to return home this year.

The San Diego Zoo’s 7-week-old giant panda cub gets examined by veterinarians on Sept. 21, 2005 in San Diego, California. 

Handout | Getty Images News | Getty Images

But as bilateral relations thawed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged in January giant pandas would return to the U.S., saying the two countries must coexist peacefully and put their differences aside, the Associate Press reported.

“Beijing wants to improve American perceptions of China and is leaning into cultural diplomacy because it does not want to compromise on political issues such as human rights, industrial policy, and territorial disputes,” Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese Politics at Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis told CNBC.

However, he highlighted that the pandas’ arrival to San Diego will have little impact on bilateral relations.

“Panda diplomacy will have little impact on the U.S.-China relationship, which has already entered a seemingly prolonged period of strategic competition,” Thomas said.

“Zoogoers should enjoy watching the cute pandas without worrying that Washington has become beholden to Beijing.”

— With reporting from NBC News.



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