By: Kate Sullivan and Nan Liu
Since 1941, China has given or loaned over 50 pandas to countries around the world. The state-owned newspaper China Daily features a set of online maps that show the global destinations of these black-and-white goodwill ambassadors. Within Asia, Japan is home to eight of China’s pandas. Thailand and Singapore boast of two apiece and Malaysia received a shipment of a pair last month. Next door to China, however, one triangle of territory on the China Daily map is pointedly empty. India has never been a recipient of China’s panda diplomacy.
To foreground India’s “missing panda” in the bilateral relationship is to suggest that things could be cuddlier between China and India. Indeed, a similar message is currently making its way from Beijing to Delhi. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Narendra Modi on becoming PM. Now is an ideal moment to ask why pandas — and all that they stand for — are lacking in the relationship.
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Panda diplomacy is about far more than the transfer of a bear from one country to another. As Henry Nicholls narrates in his definitive history, The Way of the Panda, modern panda diplomacy has its roots in World War II, when “political forces in China… became alert to the possibility of using the giant panda to strengthen ties with the… West”. China’s panda gifts have now transformed into panda loans and enjoy a far broader appeal. Since 1994, China has collaborated with countries around the world to encourage panda-breeding programmes, with panda lease-fees used to finance a global panda conservation scheme.
China’s recent panda transactions have targeted close trading partners, especially those in Asia. In a 2013 journal article, scholars Buckingham, David and Jepson characterise these long-term loans of pandas as guanxi or “personalised networks of influence and a depth of relationship where members move into an inner circle characterised by trust, reciprocity, loyalty and longevity”. Such an endorsement of the bilateral trade relationship may be exactly what Modi is hoping for. In his first conversation as PM with the Chinese premier, he “welcomed greater economic engagement between the two countries”.
This emphasis on trade is significant in light of India’s trade deficit with China. While China is now India’s largest trade partner, India is only China’s seventh largest export destination. China feels the imbalance, too, and hopes that the new Modi leadership will offer part of the solution. Chinese expert Ye Hailin, deputy director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, sees Modi’s pro-industrialisation tendencies as holding new promise. The PM’s anticipated development plans mesh well with both China’s own experience in industrialisation and its interest in investment. Thus, Hailin is hopeful that the new leadership will promote India’s economic and trade cooperation with China.
Trade with China may not suffice for panda diplomacy to be unfurled across the border, however.
Buckingham, David and Jepson suggest that China’s rent-a-panda scheme is only on offer “to cities whose zoo meets a baseline of technical capacity and resources”. India, the authors claim, is “among the nations with which China trades but does not potentially deem technically sufficiently developed to receive a panda”. This speaks volumes about Chinese views of Indian infrastructure but also of the potential for deeper economic ties.
Writing in China’s 21st Century Business Herald, Meng Yu is optimistic that Modi will present Chinese investors with new opportunities by speeding up infrastructure projects. Chinese investment in India is still far lower than in other Asian countries but Yu is hopeful that Modi will work to attract foreign investment and build up India’s retail industry. But Chinese companies, Yu says, seek more clarity when doing business with India. Laws and regulations pertaining to land acquisition, environmental permits and labour issues are hindering Chinese investment. Clearer regulatory frameworks and a way through complex multistage approval processes are urgently needed.
The absence of China’s panda diplomacy towards India may have a civilisational dimension. In China’s eyes, India’s own rare and powerful beasts dominate its civilisational identity. The allure of the panda may be eclipsed by fierce competition from wonders such as South Asia’s Bengal tiger or the great Indian rhinoceros. Amidst the prickly contest of pride between these two great civilisations, China may fear that India does not yet have the magnanimity to celebrate the national emblem of a foe from its recent past.
Nonetheless, Chinese government experts, such as Liu Zongyi from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, have made positive comparisons between Modi and Richard Nixon, who famously broke the deadlock in relations between the US and China in the 1970s. In that case, a panda loan to India would be the next logical step: Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 was swiftly followed by Zhou Enlai’s gift of a pair of pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling.
With its stunning array of flora and fauna, India’s reciprocation would likely be more impressive than that of the Nixon administration. The US followed up China’s gift by dispatching a pair of musk oxen. The shaggy, unkempt look of this unappealing animal, the male of which is said to emit an objectionable odour in the rutting season, may not have been the return compliment China was expecting.
Keeping culture and history in mind, one dimension of China’s sentiment towards its national symbol may resonate more deeply with India. China maintains strict control over the pandas it sends abroad. Not only does each recipient country pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per panda each year in lease-fee, but China receives yet more payments for any offspring born and new cubs must return to China before their second birthday. The mortal remains of an unlucky panda who does not survive in its new home will be repatriated to China. The high cost and reverence demanded by China for its national icon may well be as much about civilisational respect as animal welfare. Faced with panda poaching from the West during its colonial past, China has since taken pride in setting the terms of its panda transactions. For China to waive some of these rules for India would underscore the two countries’ common ground in their historical experience of colonialism and their camaraderie in a bold and confident present.
As Modi strides along the northeastern-Himalayan border of India’s foreign policy challenges, he might like to keep in mind a poem penned by an aspirant panda-bagger of the past, Australian missionary James Huston Edgar. On his travels in western China and Tibet in the 1910s, Edgar spotted a large black and white specimen snoozing in the branches of an oak tree — “curled up in a great ball very much after the manner of cats”. He was not equipped with a gun but took up camp a short distance away to wait for the majestic creature to climb down. The successive verses of Edgar’s poem grow redolent with frustration as a fierce storm drives the poet-missionary into reluctant retreat. The wily panda shifts from posing a possible threat to his camp, to offering a promise of economic gain and finally features as a treasure in the “charming zoo” of his imagination.
The title of Edgar’s poem was “Waiting for the Panda”. With an open ear to China’s overtures, Modi may have more luck. A panda from China would bring “treasure” to both countries in the shape of closer cooperation between Chinese and Indian leaders and their people. Modi’s own “charming zoo” is on display this week, and India will hopefully prove a hospitable destination for panda diplomacy.
Sullivan is lecturer in Modern Indian Studies at the University of Oxford. Liu is a student at Oxford, currently on leave from the Chinese foreign ministry.
Views expressed are personal