The failure of panda diplomacy

Taipei… you are killing me! Earlier today, Taiwan rejected China’s offer of two pandas.  They were part of an olive branch that Beijing extended soon after it had passed the Anti-Secession act, which had promised harsh repercussions if Taiwan ever made a move towards independence. I was in Taiwan last year when China made the ...

609031_panda.thumbnail5.jpg
609031_panda.thumbnail5.jpg

Taipei... you are killing me! Earlier today, Taiwan rejected China's offer of two pandas.  They were part of an olive branch that Beijing extended soon after it had passed the Anti-Secession act, which had promised harsh repercussions if Taiwan ever made a move towards independence. I was in Taiwan last year when China made the offer, and I asked people what they thought, in a informal and unofficial poll. Most people had the same reaction that any of us would, "Awwww....pandas! So cute!"  But some politicians were saying that the pandas were a Trojan horse, meant to conquer and divide the Taiwanese public and curry favor for unification by melting hearts with the pandas' buttery goodness. To be fair, it's true that taking care of pandas is an incredibly expensive endeavor. And it was never clear who was going to help take care of them... Taiwan? China? Both? There were also some complicated legal requirements surrounding the transport and care of endangered species, details that were never quite hammered out. But still, people! They're pandas! They're cute! They're cuddly! It was a master stroke for China to offer the pandas, because they put Taiwan between a rock and a hard place. Accept the pandas, a costly endeavor, and risk appearing to accept China's opinion that Taiwan is merely a renegade province. Reject the pandas, and risk stoking China's ire and seeming curmudgeonly and hard-hearted. Either way, Taiwan loses. But I think Taiwan could have found a way to accept the pandas as a gesture of goodwill, without kowtowing to Beijing. It could have accepted them by making sure there were no strings attached, other than the same ones that govern China's loaning of pandas to other nations. Taiwan could have strengthened cultural ties between the people of the mainland and the island, and gained an edge in the court of public opinion. 



Taipei… you are killing me! Earlier today, Taiwan rejected China’s offer of two pandas.  They were part of an olive branch that Beijing extended soon after it had passed the Anti-Secession act, which had promised harsh repercussions if Taiwan ever made a move towards independence. I was in Taiwan last year when China made the offer, and I asked people what they thought, in a informal and unofficial poll.
 
Most people had the same reaction that any of us would, “Awwww….pandas! So cute!”  But some politicians were saying that the pandas were a Trojan horse, meant to conquer and divide the Taiwanese public and curry favor for unification by melting hearts with the pandas’ buttery goodness. To be fair, it’s true that taking care of pandas is an incredibly expensive endeavor. And it was never clear who was going to help take care of them… Taiwan? China? Both? There were also some complicated legal requirements surrounding the transport and care of endangered species, details that were never quite hammered out. But still, people! They’re pandas! They’re cute! They’re cuddly!
 
It was a master stroke for China to offer the pandas, because they put Taiwan between a rock and a hard place. Accept the pandas, a costly endeavor, and risk appearing to accept China’s opinion that Taiwan is merely a renegade province. Reject the pandas, and risk stoking China’s ire and seeming curmudgeonly and hard-hearted. Either way, Taiwan loses.
 
But I think Taiwan could have found a way to accept the pandas as a gesture of goodwill, without kowtowing to Beijing. It could have accepted them by making sure there were no strings attached, other than the same ones that govern China’s loaning of pandas to other nations. Taiwan could have strengthened cultural ties between the people of the mainland and the island, and gained an edge in the court of public opinion.
 

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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