Chinese leader Xi Jinping suggested Wednesday China could send new pandas to the United States, calling them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,” in the latest gesture aimed at easing fraught ties between the two powers.
“I…learned that the San Diego Zoo and the Californians very much look forward to welcoming pandas back,” Xi told American business leaders during a speech in San Francisco on Wednesday.
“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples.”
Xi delivered the remarks hours after he held extensive talks with US President Joe Biden, where the two leaders made positive steps in stabilizing rocky relations between the world’s top two economies.
China loans pandas to more than 20 countries around the world as envoys of friendship from Beijing – a program that’s often referred to as “panda diplomacy.”
Over the past decade, Xi has approved new panda loans across Europe, including to Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland. Last year, China sent a pair of pandas to Qatar, in the first loan to a Middle Eastern country.
In contrast, China has not granted any new panda loans to the US for two decades.
Pandas have served as something of an unofficial barometer of China-US relations since 1972, when Beijing gifted a pair of the bears to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. following US President Richard Nixon’s historic ice-breaking trip to China.
Earlier this month, three last remaining pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo – Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji – were returned to China, marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo.
Their departure leaves Zoo Atlanta as the only other US zoo to feature pandas from China. The contracts for Atlanta’s four bears is set to expire next year, with no word on an extension.
“Recently, the three pandas at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. have returned to China. I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said at the dinner event Wednesday.
The Chinese leader did not offer additional details on where any future Chinese pandas might be sent, but suggested California would be the most likely destination.
The San Diego Zoo returned its last two pandas to China in 2019, after the loan agreement concluded.
Xi arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday for a four-day visit that includes his attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation international forum. It’s also the Chinese leader’s first trip to the US in more than six years.
The four-hour long meeting between Xi and Biden on Wednesday was the first time the two leaders have spoken since November 2022, when they met on the sidelines of another international gathering in Bali, Indonesia.