Posted by: Dexter Roberts on December 24, 2008
It’s the latest goodwill gesture to emanate across the Taiwan Straits. Beijing on Dec. 23—let us call it an early Christmas present—sent two of its rare giant pandas on a direct flight to Taipei, Taiwan. The two pandas—Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan (their names together mean “united,” no doubt intended to refer to Beijing’s long-held desire to bring Taiwan back into its fold)—left their former home in the mountainous and earthquake-prone province of Sichuan via airplane, for their new abode in the Taipei Zoo.
“The pandas take 1.3 billion of mainland people’s blessing to Taiwan and will sow the seeds of peace, unity and fraternal love there,” said Zheng Lizhong, the deputy chief of the Taiwan Affairs Office in a farewell ceremony. Given the sometimes hostile nature of relations between the two sides, including the fact that China still points hundreds of missiles at the island, Zheng’s words may seem a trifle overblown. And certainly that’s a lot of weight to put on the furry shoulders of a couple of bamboo-chewing, roly-poly big mammals.
Nevertheless, the reality is that relations between the former foes have already improved vastly. The latest rapprochement began after pro-China Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May earlier this year, replacing former President Chen Shui-bian, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. One of the most recent signs of warming was the resumption of direct air, shipping and postal links on Dec. 15 after an almost 60-year-hiatus.
That was closely followed by agreements to allow more financial contacts, agreed upon at a weekend meeting between senior officials from China’s Communist Party and Taiwan’s KMT on Dec. 20-21. Those include considering allowing Taiwan’s banks and securities houses to upgrade their mainland representative offices to branches, thus better serving the businesses run by some 750,000 Taiwanese in China. Beijing too agreed to offer $19 billion in financing to Taiwanese companies operating on the mainland over the next few years.
China has a long history of using its pandas to highlight improving diplomatic relations, purportedly dating back to the Tang Dynasty. Since the 1950s it has given pandas to nine countries including Japan, U.S. North Korea, and former Soviet Union. But panda diplomacy has not always been welcomed. Taiwan refused an earlier offer of pandas a few years ago when the less China-friendly DPP government was in charge.