U.S. Envoy Engages In Panda Diplomacy

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 26, 2006

CHENGDU, China, Jan. 25 -- Diplomacy is in large part symbolism, and the symbol was unmistakable. There was Robert B. Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state assigned to manage U.S. relations with China, hugging a baby panda.

Zoellick, who was formerly a member of the advisory council of the World Wildlife Fund, had a natural interest in visiting the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base here in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in central China. The appealing creatures, he pointed out during a two-hour tour Wednesday, have long been a symbol of joint U.S.-Chinese efforts to preserve the environment and protect wild animals.

But ever since President Richard M. Nixon opened contacts with the Communist government in 1972, pandas also have been a symbol of political cooperation between Beijing and Washington. The Chinese program of sending pandas as gifts, but more frequently on lease and loan, to zoos in Washington, Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis, has played a large role in de-icing diplomatic, commercial and public relations over the past 30 years.

In that context, Zoellick's pose with Jing Jing, a female cub born at the Chengdu facility in August, was seen at least in part as a signal to China about where he wants to steer U.S.-Chinese relations. The official New China News Agency received his message 10-4. It immediately transmitted a happy photo of Zoellick and Jing Jing around the country, illustrating the government's view that good U.S.-China relations are essential and, in fact, getting better and better.

Zoellick's gesture, in another reading, could also be seen as a signal of where he stands in the Washington debate about China. Interpreted that way, becoming a public panda-hugger was an eloquent endorsement of the view that engagement with Beijing is the best path for the United States and that China's emergence as an Asian power does not have to mean conflict in the Pacific.

"You want to know how the panda felt?" he asked. "Very soft."

Zoellick, in a meeting with reporters, joked that he had discussed the various readings of his panda poses with his staff before agreeing to take Jing Jing on his lap. Some aides had questioned whether the image was the right one to convey, he acknowledged, but he decided to go ahead because his wife wanted a photo of him with a panda. "At my age, I listen to my wife," he said.

Zoellick, who left Chengdu for a panel discussion on China at the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, was named point man for U.S.-China policy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the start of the second Bush administration. In particular, he has become the main U.S. interlocutor in a strategic dialogue set up last year in response to Chinese requests for sustained discussions on long-term issues between Washington and Beijing.

This visit to China, which came in addition to that twice-yearly schedule, was partly to maintain contacts with Chinese leaders and show interest in keeping up a close relationship, Zoellick said. He met Tuesday with Premier Wen Jiabao, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and his own counterpart in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Dai Bingguo.

But the two-day stay here, after stops in Japan and at U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, also included specific talks on issues that could be seen as a test of the U.S.-Chinese engagement his panda photo was meant to symbolize. These, he said, included China's stand on the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, China's role in diplomacy to persuade North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program and China's currency policies at a time of soaring U.S. trade deficits.

Chinese officials made clear they shared the U.S. and European goal of demonstrating to Iran's rulers that they should not proceed with a program that could lead to nuclear weapons production, Zoellick said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, said Tuesday, however, that China believed more time should be allowed for diplomacy before resorting to sanctions or other pressures from the U.N. Security Council.

Reporting on his talks, Zoellick said he emphasized to Chinese officials that their own oft-repeated goal of energy security argued for joining in the effort. A government such as Iran's armed with nuclear missiles would be a destabilizing force in the Middle East, China's main source of imported oil, even though China has signed a long-term oil and gas deal with Tehran, he said.

The argument, Zoellick explained, flowed from the idea of making China more of a "responsible stakeholder," a major state with worldwide interests to preserve through cooperation with other governments. The approach was laid out in a speech in September outlining the administration's underlying policy toward China.

Zoellick also received a report from Chinese officials on last week's tour by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. In addition to meetings with President Hu Jintao, Wen and other senior Chinese Communist Party officials, Kim visited ports and factories in the booming Pearl River Delta, just north of Hong Kong and a showcase for China's economic reforms.

The question was whether what Kim saw would inspire him to enact similar changes in his own country, which some officials believe would open North Korea to the world and help with a long-term solution to the nuclear standoff. Zoellick suggested the response from Chinese officials who hosted Kim was: "We'll see."

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