Monday, July 2, 2018

Public Diplomacy: China’s Panda Diplomacy

Lily Werlinich, Emma Barrera and Mailinh McNicholas,

Image from, under the headline: Berlin Zoo to have a pair of pandas by next summer

Nuclear arms may be the current talk of the town, but China has been successfully deploying a furrier weapon for years: the panda. Late last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Berlin’s Tierpark Zoo to commemorate the latter’s loan of Meng-Meng (“Little Dream”) and Jiao Qing (“Darling”). The two pandas will remain in Berlin
for the next 15 years at an annual cost of $1 million.

The two world leaders met for the exchange two days before the G20 meeting to project a peaceful, friendly relationship to the international community, a stark contrast to the atmosphere that President Trump would bring with him to the conference.

Yet this loan is much more than a mere photo-op. For years, the Chinese government has loaned pandas to other nations as a way of signifying respect. China lent the United States its first pandas in 1972 after President Nixon’s historic visit to the Asian nation. Pandas can even be withdrawn when a nation refuses to support China’s political policies. After President Obama met with the Dalai Lama in 2010 against China’s wishes, panda cubs from Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo were repatriated. Other times, pandas certify the existence of favorable trade relations between China and its partner nations. China and Germany are the first- and third-largest trading nations in the world, respectively, and therefore must work to craft deals favorable to both nations.

This exchange of pandas is a theatrical display of public diplomacy [JB emphasis] and a way for China to flex its soft power, a branch of diplomacy that the nation has historically neglected. As defined by Joseph Nye, countries use soft power to make themselves more attractive. They do so by emphasizing their culture, political institutions, and foreign policies in ways that appeal to international sentiment.

Pandas are an excellent source of soft power because of their inherent charm. The bear-like mammals symbolize political power in the East and wildlife conservation in the West. But perhaps most importantly, they are simply adorable and adorable animals are transnational and transcultural.

China’s new soft power initiatives reflect the nation’s desire to project its power beyond the Asian region. In its nineteenth National Congress in October, the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping announced the country’s commitment to achieving “China’s dream” of becoming the number one global power during this century by developing a powerful military and reaching full economic development by 2050.

China’s new foreign policy strategy rejects isolationism and aims to promote inclusive development, as reflected by the country’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” to link China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and Africa through physical infrastructure, financial arrangements, and cultural exchanges.

As China transitions to a more assertive role in the international arena, President Xi Jinping aims to develop China’s soft power by presenting a“true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China.” Ultimately, China’s embrace of globalism and shift in style, attitude, and behavior in global affairs is likely to have a profound impact on the international order.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

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