According to a recent study by Oxford University, China has been giving pandas to nations based on beneficial trade agreements and their willingness to part with crucial natural resources.
According to the researchers, this represents a new phase of a longstanding practice:
Phase 1 during the Mao era (in the 1960s and 1970s) took the form of China gifting pandas to build strategic friendships. Phase 2 followed Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978 when gifts became gift loans involving a capitalist lease model based on financial transactions. In the emerging phase 3, panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and technology and symbolize China’s willingness to build guanxi—namely, deep trade relationships characterized by trust, reciprocity, loyalty, and longevity.
China sent Pandas to Japan and Australia after major trade agreements and to Canada and France after those countries signed multibillion dollar deals to export large quantities of uranium to China.
“Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn’t? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in,” Dr. Kathleen Buckingham, the lead author on the study, told Business Insider. “Recipient countries need to assess the broader environmental consequences of ‘sealing the deal’ with China before accepting panda loans, as these usually signal that China expects a long-term commitment to deliver the goods — whether they be uranium, salmon, or other natural resources.”
According to Canada’s Postedia News, in 2012 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced China would be loaning Canada two pandas on the same trip that he signed an agreement expanding Canadian uranium exports to China.
“The link between pandas and uranium in this new panda diplomacy appears significant,” the study says. “China is embarking on a major expansion of nuclear power. It has 25 power plants under construction and is planning a five- or sixfold increase in nuclear capacity by 2050. … Moreover, China’s demand for uranium will overtake domestic supply by 2020.”
A 2007 report shows 239 pandas living in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country. Wild population estimates vary from about 1,500 up to 2,000.