Diplomacy with a twist


Panda Le Le in Singapore, a furry diplomat on loan. Photos: dpa

Fans of pandas in Singapore felt pretty sad when the first panda ever born in the country, named Le Le, was recently flown back to China.

But China had lent his parents, Jia Jia and Kai Kai, to Singapore. The city-state waited years for the pandas to bear offspring before Le Le finally arrived in August 2021.

The furry diplomat won the hearts of Sinaporeans right away, and they closely followed each and every step of his development.

But the rules of panda diplomacy dictate that cubs conceived abroad be brought to China when they are around two to four years old.

Beijing is not the only place in Asia that makes friends by sharing its native flora and fauna. Singapore pursues flower power in its orchid diplomacy, while Thailand long gave away elephants as heavyweight ambassadors to smooth foreign relations.

Diplomacy with animals can be problematic, and pandas are few and far between. In their natural habitat in isolated mountain regions, there may be fewer than 2,000 specimens alive today.

Pandas are slow to mate and reproduce, but Beijing’s breeding programmes are producing offspring, enabling China to convey a cuddly image of the country despite the government’s far sterner tones.

“China has conducted cooperative research on the conservation of giant pandas with many countries, with the aim of improving the protection level of endangered species and promoting global biodiversity conservation,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry says.

“We are willing to continue to strengthen cooperation with global partners to protect endangered species.”

That diplomacy is changing, with pandas in the past passed to friendly nations such as the Soviet Union or North Korea. Nowadays, Western countries receive them too, in what is effectively a rental.

“The giant panda is not only a national treasure of China, but also deeply welcomed and loved by people from all over the world,” the ministry says.

“It can be said to be an envoy and bridge of friendship, promoting cultural integration and cultural exchange between China and foreign countries.”

Governments pay the equivalent of around US$1mil (RM4.7mil) a year for pandas but as cuddly visitor magnets, it is worth it for any zoo. But the deals are limited, and sometimes negotiations to extend them drag on beyond the deal’s expiry date, depending on the state of relations between China and the country in question.

The pandas have shown solid diplomatic muscle in some tense moments, such as in 1972 when they helped bring about a major breakthrough. Under Mao Zedong’s leadership, China handed a panda to Washington’s zoo following US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing.

In 2023, the issue made headlines again in Washington when the remaining pandas there had to return to China amid tense US-Chinese relations, leaving their enclosure empty for the first time in 50 years.

Germany was also temporarily the custodian of two pandas, Meng Meng and Jiao Qing. The pair had two offspring in 2019, delighting many visitors to Berlin Zoo.

However, cubs Pit and Paule had to return to China as planned in December – just like Le Le from Singapore. The pandas are bound for Chengdu’s panda research centre, home to an elaborate breeding programme. The operators say some 230 pandas live there in captivity, the highest number in the world.

Flower power

Flowers are not as hard to reproduce, as can be seen in Singapore’s National Orchid Garden, home to the largest collection in the world and a leader in hybrid cultivation – and a hot house for orchid diplomacy.

When monarchs, ministers or heads of state arrive, the government regularly names a specially bred species after them, which is seen as a high honour.

An orchid in Singapore’s National Orchid Garden, home to many hybrids named after outstanding personalities.An orchid in Singapore’s National Orchid Garden, home to many hybrids named after outstanding personalities.

Visitors can view these colourful creations in the VIP Orchid Garden. “These famous hybrids promote goodwill and foster bilateral relationships with friends of Singapore,” they learn.

On show are the Dendrobium Frank-Walter Steinmeier, named after the current German president, a Papilionanda William Catherine, a Sealara Nelson Mandela, a Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, and countless other hybrids.

Heavyweight ambassadors

Thailand, meanwhile, used to offer elephants for a while. Pachyderms are revered as sacred in many Asian countries and have been donated in the past as “goodwill ambassadors”, particularly by Thailand, where the elephant is the national animal.

But that went awry when nations receiving the animals failed to respect them, leading to diplomatic upsets such as last year, when activists discovered Thai elephant Sak Surin doing hard labour at a temple site in Sri Lanka. The elephant suffered abscesses and a stiff leg. The ensuing dismay meant he was repatriated to Bangkok, but only after lengthy diplomatic exchanges.

Elephants at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Thailand gave away elephants in the past but tensions developed due to the ill treatment of Sak Surin, one of three elephants once gifted to Sri Lanka.Elephants at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Thailand gave away elephants in the past but tensions developed due to the ill treatment of Sak Surin, one of three elephants once gifted to Sri Lanka.

Sak Surin came home on a charter flight for treatment at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre but the incident strained ties between Thailand and Sri Lanka, an opposition politician from Sri Lanka said at the time.

The prime minister said his government had officially apologised to Thailand – but returning an elephant that was given away is always an affront, no matter what the situation.

Some 10 Thai pachyderms are still living abroad, Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said last year. But Thailand stopped giving away elephants as gifts three years ago, following pressure from animal rights activists. – dpa/Carola Frentzen and Johannes Neudecker

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