x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Diplomacy is a bear

China's panda diplomacy is back in vogue. But now, with a slight difference.

Foreign relations can be a minefield. Religious and cultural sensitivities have to be navigated; political alliances created; trade pacts agreed; even nuclear treaties signed.

Or, sometimes, you can just send a big cuddly bear.

China's panda diplomacy has existed for centuries, dating back to gifts sent to the early emperors of Japan. But the bears really became a symbol of the communist regime as it emerged from self-imposed isolation in the 1970s. Over the years, Beijing gave them away as goodwill tokens, most famously following the Nixon visit and detente with the US in 1972.

But China is a far different country these days. Pandas are not given away anymore; instead, other countries are lining up for the endangered animals and happy to pay as much $1 million (Dh3.6 million) per year to lease them. Scotland became the latest panda recipient yesterday when Tian Tian and Yang Guang checked into Edinburgh Zoo. France, meanwhile, has been conducting secret negotiations for two others.

But it is in Thailand where panda fever has swept all before it. The 24-hour Panda Channel, following a family of three pandas, has become a massive cult hit.

The black-and-white bear still apparently inspires warm feelings that span across borders. The difference is, now China makes you pay for it.