As the last pandas left Washington Zoo for China in November last year, President Xi’s surprise suggestion that new furry arrivals could soon be on their way sparks questions. Does this signal a thaw in strained US–China relations? Or is it a carefully crafted image masking deeper issues?
China views pandas as national symbols, deploying them as “diplomatic ambassadors.” If you’re friends with China you get a panda, if not, keep on dreaming. This practice, dubbed “panda diplomacy,” started in 1972 with Nixon’s historic China visit. The point of the trip was to normalize relations between China and the US. The mission was a success, with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sending a panda to Washington Zoo within weeks of the visit.
By the end of 1972, as other countries recognized Beijing, they also received pandas. Over the following decades, pandas became tokens of goodwill, arriving at strategic moments when China wanted to improve relations. For instance, in the wake of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, and again in 2007, amidst the peak of the economic ties between China and Australia, a breeding pair was dispatched to the Adelaide Zoo.
Since 2007, a lot of things have heralded the souring of relations between China and the West. Trade wars over chips and semiconductors, countless reports of cyber attacks by China on the US (which China strenuously denies) and regional gray-zone warfare have all contributed.
With growing tensions and conflicting narratives, one can’t help but ask: Is panda diplomacy nearing its expiration date?
Wolf warrior diplomacy, a controversial and assertive foreign policy approach first adopted by China in 2019, emerged as a tool to drive China’s more combative strategies to defend its interests and project its growing power.
Panda diplomacy and Chinese soft power suffered considerably in the wolf warrior era. Five years ago there were 16 pandas in the US. By the end of next year there will be none. The UK’s pandas left in 2023 and Australia’s will leave in 2024. Using panda math, China’s relationships with the West are at their lowest since 1972.
Thankfully, there are a number of factors suggesting that the wolf warrior era is coming to an end, or at least evolving. Leadership changes to senior diplomats, a slowing Chinese economy, and an international backlash has emphasized the need for a more conciliatory approach.
However, with trust at an all time low, a return to panda diplomacy of old is unlikely. China is now evolving into the era of peak panda propaganda.
Xi’s panda bait feels disingenuous, a “whitewashing with whiskers” obscuring complex realities. While charming, it clashes with concerns about China’s cyber threats and regional ambitions.
FBI Director Christopher Wray’s warnings last month about cyberattacks highlight the gap between panda propaganda’s friendly facade and China’s actions. He said:
“China’s hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities, if or when China decides the time has come to strike.
“Today, and literally every day, they’re actively attacking our economic security, engaging in wholesale theft of our innovation, and our personal and corporate data.”
On February 7th a public cybersecurity warning, one of the largest and starkest of its kind, from six US agencies, as well as allied cybersecurity and intelligence agencies from all Five Eyes countries was published reiterating Wray’s concerns. It warned Chinese hackers have at times secretly hidden in US infrastructure for up to five years, ready to conduct a potentially destructive cyberattack if the two countries were to go to war.
This admission comes on the back of further intelligence reports revealed in July last year that highlighted covert and embedded Chinese malware capable of disrupting US military operations, including those crucial for the defense of Taiwan.
SoftIron has repeatedly and consistently pointed to this threat. It’s one of the main reasons why we design, manufacture and assemble all our kit in our own US and Australian factories. Only SoftIron employees manufacture our products. We provide the security, verifiability and audibility to deliver zero-trust infrastructure that mitigates the risk of trojan horse hardware and software.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the delay in renewing agreements crucial for the security and development of island nations—Palau, Federation of Micronesia and Marshall Islands, members of the Compacts of Free Association (COFA)—creates an opening for China to expand its influence. This further amplifies the need for a clear and unified US position in the region, especially after China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands last year and is threatening to do the same in Papua New Guinea.
Panda diplomacy and traditional approaches to trust-building have their limitations. While the charm of a panda can’t replace genuine transparency, exploring “zero-trust” solutions might offer an alternative way to reduce friction in China’s relations with the West.
In saying that, if a panda is on offer, I’ll still take one. Even with strings attached, their charm offensive is quite hard to refuse.