Washington's giant pandas could be sent back to China in latest casualty of US-China trade war

Rozina Sabur
Bei Bei is set to move to China after turning four years old - AFP

Washington's National Zoo may be left without any giant pandas amid fears Donald Trump's ongoing trade war with China could see the bears become a political tool. 

The Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda bears are one of the main draws for its two million annual visitors but the current lease of its two adults, male Tian Tian and female Mei Xiang, is due to expire next year. 

The zoo's only other panda, Bei Bei, turned four this month - the age where pandas fully mature and are able to breed - and will be sent back to China for a breeding programme within the next few months under a prior agreement.

China's giant pandas have often been used to sweeten relations with international partners; Washington's National Zoo received its first pair in 1972 to commemorate President Richard Nixon's successful visit to China.

Those bears were a gift, but the current pair were sent over under a lease agreement which has since been extended multiple times but is now set to expire on December 7 2020.

Giant panda Bei Bei eats his frozen 4th birthday cake at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington Credit:  ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP

But there are now fears that the two pandas could be drawn into the tit-for-tat trade war which has seen tensions between America and China escalate in recent months. 

Mr Trump has repeatedly rebuked the country for treating America "unfairly" and his administration is poised to impose 15 percent tariffs on some $112 billion of Chinese imports today/SUN. 

Beijing has warned that it has "ample" means to retaliate but has also signalled its willingness to continue negotiating.

The zoo said it has not started discussions with the Chinese about Mei Xiang and Tian Tian's lease but hope the pandas will be able to stay. However there is some speculation the Chinese government may wish to hold off negotiations until closer to the November 2020 US presidential election, when the political landscape becomes clearer. 

“Our agreements are based on science surrounding the giant pandas,” Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman for the zoo, told the Washington Post. “We’ve accomplished a lot over the last 40-plus years. Now both sides have to take a look at what the future science goals should be, and they go from there.”

China sent Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in 2000 on a 10-year, $10 million lease to the zoo, the lease was renegotiated in 2011 for five years at a cost of $500,000 a year. Another agreement was struck in 2015 to extend the lease until the end of 2020. 

To add to the tension around the panda's fate, the zoo is currently waiting on tenter hooks to establish whether Mei Xiang is pregnant. The panda's behaviour has changed in the last month, suggesting she may be pregnant, but she has had several false pregnancies in recent years.