China to send more pandas to US, jump-starting new era of 'panda diplomacy'

Giant panda cubs born in 2018 eat and play during a group birthday celebration at Shenshuping panda base in Wolong, Sichuan

By Eduardo Baptista and Bernard Orr

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Wildlife Conservation Association is working with the National Zoo in Washington in an arrangement that could bring more pandas back to the United States, signalling improving diplomatic relations between the two superpowers.

China has lent its beloved bears to zoos in various countries over the years as goodwill animal ambassadors and also fostered a modern Sino-U.S. "panda diplomacy" with the gesture.

"Relevant Chinese institutions have signed agreements with the Madrid Zoo in Spain and the San Diego Zoo in the United States on a new round of international cooperation in the protection of giant pandas," said Mao Ning on Thursday, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, when addressing a query at a regular press briefing.

"They are also working with the Washington National Zoo in the United States and (Viennna Zoo) in Austria to actively negotiate and launch a new round of cooperation."

Earlier, the Wildlife Conservation Association said on its WeChat social media account that it had reached and signed agreements for the conservation of giant pandas with several zoos.

Back in November, the National Zoo in Washington returned three pandas to China as part of a more than 50-year-old legacy, leaving Georgia's Zoo Atlanta as the only one in the U.S. with a giant panda program.

That loan agreement for the zoo's four pandas expires this year, which meant there would be no pandas in the U.S. for the first time since 1972 when the Chinese government presented two giant pandas as gifts to the United States after President Richard Nixon's historic Cold War visit to China.

"We look forward to a new round of international giant panda protection cooperation with relevant countries, which will further expand scientific research results on the protection of giant pandas and other endangered species, and promote people-to-people bonds and people-to-people friendship," Mao said.

Over the past year, China and the United States have had fraught relations over a number of global issues from regional wars, trade disputes and ongoing spying allegations. Leaders from both countries have had several round of talks over the past few months to ease tensions.

(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Bernard Orr; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)