An Oxford University study argues that the Chinese government is currently in a phase of giving pandas built on 'guanxi'.
Guanxi is a Chinese concept denoting deep trade relationships characterised by trust, loyalty and longevity.
The paper, published in the journal Environmental Practice, suggests that the beneficiary countries need to be aware that such panda deals could herald environmental implications over the long term.
One deal cited in the study is that involving Edinburgh Zoo, which was overseen by China's deputy premier while negotiating contracts valued at £2.6 billion for the supply of petro-chemical and renewable energy technology, salmon meat, and Land Rovers. Scotland received its first pair of pandas in December 2011.
The study also points out that Canada, France and Australia, a country with the world's largest uranium reserves, have had panda loans that all coincided with uranium deals and contracts with China. It notes that China needs uranium to fulfil its plans for a five- or six-fold increase in nuclear capacity by 2050.
The impetus for sending pandas all over the world came in 2008 following the devastation to China's main panda conservation centre in Sichuan Province. The study says that all of the 60 pandas living at the Wolong Nature Reserve and Breeding Centre needed to be rehoused. It proposes that expanding panda loans represented 'both a lucrative source of funds to assist the rebuilding and development of the centre and a partial solution to the housing problem'. The study adds that as well as extending existing loans, China began to offer panda gift loans to a new group of countries with whom it was negotiating important trade agreements.
The study highlights that recent panda transactions have involved close Asian neighbours (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Macao) that have signed free-trade agreements with China, or with nations supplying China with natural resources and advanced technologies (Japan, Canada and France and Singapore).
Such panda loans not only represent a 'seal of approval' for important trade deals, but also send a signal of disapproval if pandas are repatriated, suggests the study. It cites the case of two US-born panda cubs, which were contractually due to return to China in 2010, but were on a plane bound for China just two days after the US President Barack Obama was warned against meeting the Dalai Lama. The timing is described as 'significant', not least because these are the only pandas to have been recalled since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Zoos in New Zealand have not yet received pandas, and the study asks whether this is because of public pronouncements by New Zealand politicians about not being prepared to sacrifice politics for pandas.
The study examines the huge expense entailed in looking after such gift loans, and suggests giant pandas are modern-day 'white elephants'. A pair of pandas is usually leased to zoos at a cost of US$1m each year with the money being paid to Chinese authorities. Once the cost of flying in fresh bamboo, which can stretch to tens of thousands of pounds a year, is also factored in the gift loan can incur 'large and sometimes ruinous cost', says the study.
Lead author Dr Kathleen Buckingham, from Oxford University's School of Geography and the Environment, noted: 'From a Chinese perspective, sharing the care of such a precious animal strengthens the bonds that China has with its "inner circle" of countries. Panda loans are not simply part of a larger deal; rather they represent a 'seal' of approval and intent for a long and prosperous working relationship. Countries that can successfully breed pandas will demonstrate their technological strength.
'Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn't? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in. Recipient countries need to assess the broader environmental consequences of "sealing the deal" with China before accepting panda loans, as these usually signal that China expects a long-term commitment to deliver the goods – whether they be uranium, salmon or other natural resources.'
Dr Paul Jepson, leader of the research team, commented: 'The panda has long symbolised western efforts to conserve wildlife internationally. However this latest phase of panda diplomacy suggests that China is reclaiming the soft power embodied in the panda as both emblem and living animal. As a result the political, trade, economic and cultural imperatives of China may come to more explicitly shape strategies to protect and restore wild panda populations.'