Americans watched with heavy hearts last week as the pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC returned to their home in China.
Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji were transported from DC on Nov. 9 after more than 50 years of their species being featured in zoos across the United States. China initially loaned the animals in 1972 under President Richard Nixon as a way to strengthen relations between the nations through "panda diplomacy."
China has not renewed their contracts with U.S. zoos as they've begun to expire. The pandas located in San Diego returned to China in 2019, leaving those at Atlanta's zoo as the last of the species still located the U.S., though their contract expires next year.
Foreign policy experts have suggested that China allowing the contracts to expire without renewal reflects the strain on their relations with the U.S.. However, following a recent meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in California, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed that he is open to returning pandas as “envoys of friendship.”
'Panda diplomacy' comes to an end
“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi said, per The Associated Press.
As the pandas left last week, the National Zoo hinted at their potential return. Chinese Minister Xu Xueyuan also said the country plans to continue its work with “cooperation partners,” including the U.S., signalling that the beloved animals may yet have a place in zoos nationwide.
Expectations for major breakthroughs during Biden and Xi's meeting were low, according to political analysts, though it still represented a positive-yet-tepid step forward for international affairs. Though Biden said he was "blunt" with Xi on the areas of tension between the countries, he seems to have helped along at least one issue important to Americans.