National secret: Obama’s role in ‘panda diplomacy’ with China

Not long before the National Zoo announced that Washington’s most beloved resident — the panda Tai Shan — was heading to China in December 2009, a secret plan took hold halfway around the world for the National Zoo to be able to hold on to the bear just awhile longer.

Referring to upcoming meetings between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, a State Department official sent an email to zoo officials in Washington suggesting that the leader of the free world get involved.

“If President Obama were to mention the National Zoo’s request to extend Tai Shan’s stay to at least late-2010 (or even later) to President Hu during one of his discussions, we think there might be a good chance that President Hu would agree, purely as a diplomatic goodwill gesture,” the State Department official wrote from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, according to emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Taken together, dozens of pages of State Department correspondence concerning the famous zoo resident provide an inside look at “panda diplomacy” at work. Indeed, officials even talked of getting “buy in” from the White House and how letting Tai Shan stay in Washington might further improve U.S.-Chinese relations.

“We have been celebrating 30 years of bilateral diplomatic relations with the [People's Republic of China] in 2009, and the two leaders are in the beginning stages of establishing a personal relationship,” a State Department official wrote. “A gesture like this from Hu might be beneficial in this process, the White House only needs to ask.

Tai Shan the panda at the National Zoo in 2009. (The Washington Times)

Enlarge Photo

Tai Shan the panda at the National Zoo in 2009. (The Washington ... more >

“If the Zoo manages to get the White House’s buy in on something like this, we would do our part here … so that they can run it up their chain as well.”

It’s unclear whether the White House intervened or whether the idea made it that far. The State Department considers that information a national secret. Follow-up correspondence on the idea that Mr. Obama personally intervene to keep Tai Shan in the U.S. was heavily redacted in the documents that the State Department produced for The Washington Times last month, after a February 2010 open-records request.

After some initial enthusiasm, officials seemed to grow resigned that the plan wasn’t going to work.

At one point, a State Department official wrote to the zoo’s acting director, Steven Monfort, that “it might all end up a wasted effort on our part.” In a subsequent email, Mr. Monfort said he had provided the names of people who were “rather high level,” and he asked for discretion.

“Not to worry,” the State Department official in Beijing replied. “Sounds like pandas may get mentioned as a positive symbol of our relationship, but perhaps without going into specifics of Tai Shan.”

Tai Shan, who also is known as “Butterstick,” was born at the National Zoo in Washington in 2005. He is the first panda born at the zoo to survive.

The cub’s parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, both born in China, are essentially being leased to the National Zoo. Under the agreement, Tai Shan, who had become wildly popular with zoo visitors, was supposed to be sent to China two years after he was born, but he got an extension and was sent back to China in February 2010.

While efforts to keep Tai Shan awhile longer weren’t successful, zoo officials this year announced that the panda agreement with China would be extended for five more years, meaning that, for now, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will stay in Washington.

If the couple have any offspring, the cubs will stay in the U.S. until age 4.

“The loan of giant pandas to the National Zoo has long symbolized the close partnership the United States has with China as we work together to conserve and recover one of the world’s most endangered species in the wild,” Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar said at the time.

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