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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.
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 continued…