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Panda Express

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What is behind the oddly compelling and mesmerizing power of the panda? Is it the fleeting and fragile reproductive ability, confined to an ovulation period of only three days per year? Or is it the big, doleful eyes and soft, round figures the world finds so irresistible? Regardless, these precious animals (of which there are fewer than 1,600 left in the wild) have the ability to command the attention of entire cities -- world capitals, no less -- as people from Washington, D.C. to Singapore gaze raptly into multi-angled, 24-hour video feeds to watch the movements of their country's visiting pandas.

Since the late 1950s, the Chinese government has made the gifting and "gift loaning" of its very rare giant panda bears an unexpectedly influential component of its foreign policy. A study recently released by Environmental Practice, titled "Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft 'Cuddly' Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation," takes a look at the evolution of the highly effective influence of China's panda diplomacy over the past six decades. According to the study's authors, we are currently in the throes of the "third phase" of panda diplomacy, during which "panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and technology." Whether to build strategic alliances or trade relationships, China's pandas are much beloved, charming recalcitrant neighbors and ideological adversaries across the globe.

What follows is a collection of photographs capturing some of the more interesting moments in panda diplomacy, from London to Malaysia, the Cold War to the Obama administration. As for the forecast on the panda front: There's only more bear-for-trade diplomacy to come, researchers say.   

Above, Yuan Zi, one of the two giant pandas that arrived last winter in France from China has a snack on Aug. 23, 2012, at Beauval zoo in Saint-Aignan. After years of panda-deal negotiations between China and France, Yuan Zi and Huan Huan left southwest China for Saint-Aignan in Jan. 2012.

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China has spent this week touting photos of a group of 14 pandas bred "artificially" in Chengdu's Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base in Southwest China's Sichuan province. The cubs were among 17 surviving bears bred at the breeding ground in 2013, three of which have been gifted to Spain and the United States. Since the Mao era, China has gifted pandas to build strategic friendships with neighbors and to patch up tense relations with adversaries. From 1957 to 1983 -- the first "phase" of panda diplomacy, according to the Environmental Review authors -- China gifted a total of 24 pandas to nine countries.

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The first diplomatic panda gifts from Chairman Mao were to Soviet Union President Nikita Khrushchev and North Korean President Kim Il Sung in 1965. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon and U.K. Premier Edward Heath also received their very own panda bears. Nixon, whose 1972 trip to China ended a 25-year diplomatic freeze in Sino-American relations, was the first American president to receive a panda loan from China.

Above, Chi Chi, the inspiration for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) logo and half of the U.K.'s first panda couple, is seen leaving the London Zoo to meet a mate in Moscow on March 11, 1966. The United Kingdom has proven to be particularly unlucky when it comes to inspiring panda procreation -- after the first couple failed, the country received another pair of bears in 1991. But they too were returned home after three years of unsuccessful mating attempts in England.

Seventeen years later, another pair of pandas were sent to the United Kingdom -- FedExed to Edinburgh, Scotland in Nov. 2011 while China's deputy premier was there negotiating contracts for supplies of salmon meat, energy technology, and Land Rovers valued at $4 billion. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said of the deal: ''Securing the loan of the pandas symbolises the great and growing friendship between Scotland and China."

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Earlier this month, the imminent arrival of two pandas in Belgium prompted a fight between the country's French-speaking region, Wallonia, and its Flemish-speaking region, Flanders. Politicians in Flanders accused Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, former mayor of the French-speaking city of Mons, of showing favoritism during the talks with the Chinese government that precipitated the announcement of the pandas' arrival. Premier Kris Peeters demanded an explanation as to why the bears -- reported to be on loan for 15 years -- were being sent to a zoo in Wallonia instead of Antwerp's historic, 170-year-old zoo. The Antwerp Zoo's spokesperson expressed disappointment in the decision, which is understandable given that, as Reuters reports, "many zoos have seen visitor numbers spike by 20 percent or more after pandas arrive."

Above, a "FedEx Panda Team" member, entrusted with overseeing high-level transport, stands in front of a plane carrying two giant pandas to France, a deal finalized on Nov. 30, 2011 after years of top-level negotiations.

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Above, a panda keeper at Chengdu's breeding ground sits with a four-month-old cub a few days before two giant pandas are sent to France as part of a conservation and research program. In the 1980s, China leased pandas to a total of eight zoos for $50,000 each month per bear -- an exchange that came under fire from conservationists because the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species legislated that panda trade could only be allowed for scientific purposes. The "rent-a-panda" program was replaced by a system in which lease fees wouldn't go directly to the Chinese government but instead would be put toward the implementation of a panda conservation plan drawn up by the WWF.

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The cost of keeping pandas is no small matter for recipient countries. The price tag on new panda facilities was estimated to be $14.5 million at the Toronto Zoo and $10.3 million at Australia's Adelaide Zoo, and importing bamboo for the pandas will cost the Edinburgh Zoo $107,000 per year.

Above, trucks carrying the pair of giant pandas from Chengdu are led by police escort as they arrive at the Beauval Zoo in St. Aignan, France, on Jan. 15, 2012.

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Papier-mâché pandas set up by WWF members are displayed in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris during the annual "Earth Hour" event in 2012. France was given two pandas in 2012 -- a gift that, according to the Environmental Practice study, coincided with a $20-billion deal involving a uranium oxide supply and the construction of a uranium treatment plant in China by a French company. The gift and trade deal closed a period of frosty diplomatic relations between the two countries after France made the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, an honorary citizen.

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Activists from the animal rights group WildAid who are dressed as pandas wave from a tour bus in Berlin in Sept. 2012, drawing attention to the extinction threat that panda bears face. The image of panda bears has been central to conservation messaging since the adoption of a panda bear as the logo for WWF, founded in 1961. The last remaining panda in Germany died in August 2012. The bear, Bao Bao, was a present from Chinese leader Hua Guofeng during a state visit in 1980.

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People watch a webcam stream of two Chinese pandas' introduction to a quarantine facility in Singapore in Sept. 2012, where the bears, named Kai Kai and Jia Jia, stayed for a month before being released into a temperature-controlled exhibit. In accordance with panda gift custom since the 1990s, the 10-year loan was part of a negotiation between the China Wildlife Conservation Association and Wildlife Reserves Singapore. China and Singapore became partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free-trade agreement in 2010, an important factor in the panda gift.

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Queen Sofia of Spain visits a baby panda bear born in Spain in 2010 from an artificially inseminated Chinese mother. Although recipient zoos are supposed to make every effort to breed the pandas they receive as gifts, China assumes ownership of the offspring after the pandas' second birthday.

In August 2013, Spain's panda Hua Zui Ba gave birth to her third cub. The first two cubs have since returned to China.

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A young visitor at the Beijing Zoo looks through a window at a giant panda in June 2008. The panda was among those at the zoo that survived an earthquake on May 12, 2008, which devastated major panda breeding centers, affecting 67 percent of the panda habitat overall. The crisis that ensued led to the extension of existing gift loans previously due to expire in 2013 and 2015 and the offering of panda loans to a new group of nations. The resulting loans to Japan, Scotland, Canada, France, and Singapore are, according to the Environmental Practice study's authors, notable because all of those countries are either Asian neighbors or countries that have signed free-trade agreements with China since 2009.

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Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer holds a photo of a panda as he addresses reporters after an announcement that Australia would receive a pair of pandas from China on Oct. 31, 2009. The gift was given in the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Australia, in which trade and climate change were high on the agenda for talks among the leaders from Australia, China, and the United States. The panda deal was also brokered after a rough patch in Sino-Australian relations as a result of Australian restrictions on Chinese mining investments.

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Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his wife, Begum Sehba Musharraf, pet a panda at the Chengdu breeding center during their China trip in Feb. 2006.

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A volunteer at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo keeps watch over Mei Xiang in June 2005, who was artificially inseminated a few months earlier. She gave birth later that year to Tai Shan, who was sent to a breeding program in China in 2010. In Aug. 2013, she gave birth to another "healthy, vibrant" cub.

The first Washington, D.C. pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, were given to the National Zoo in 1972, and were followed by Mei Xiang and her mate, Tian Tian, when the first two passed away. Reportedly, the first U.S.-China panda deal was brokered when First Lady Pat Nixon told Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai about her affection for pandas, and he responded reassuringly: "I'll give you some."

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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton makes a stop at the new panda exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2001.

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The most important message of the Environmental Practice report is the adaptability of panda diplomacy: When a new diplomatic quandary emerges, China can almost always leverage the power of the panda to draw in allies and ease tensions. Chairman Mao first used the furry ambassador to win over strategic friends in the Soviet Union and North Korea. And last year, China's drive to expand its nuclear capabilities, part of its broader ascendance to a global economic superpower, was the impetus behind another strategic panda gift to France brokered in order to secure uranium. As China's rise continues, we can be relatively sure that the big black eyes and roly-poly bodies of the panda will be employed in diplomatic deals for decades to come.

Above, a woman wearing a panda costume returns to Cangzhou from Beijing via train on the first day of Spring Festival travel season on Jan. 26. 

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