In the summer of 2010, a giant panda called Xing Xing, on loan from China to a zoo in Kobe, died on the operating table during an artificial insemination procedure. The Chinese ordered that Xing Xing’s body be secured until the arrival of a forensic team. Media outlets back at home demanded that Beijing seek compensation for the bear’s death, alleging errors in sedation.
Worse was to come two years later, when the first panda to be born in Japan in more than two decades died just a week after birth.
Relations between the Asian neighbours were already threadbare after Tokyo’s support for an effort to “nationalise” disputed islands in the East China Sea. In this febrile climate, conspiracy theories abounded. An editorial in the Global Times went as far as to accuse the Japanese of “deliberately murdering” the panda cub.
Since then no new bears have been loaned by China to Japan (so called ‘panda diplomacy’ has a long history, dating back more than a thousand years to when Empress Wu Zetian gave one to the Japanese emperor; more recently the Chinese also gave a pair of bears to Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 1972 in commemoration of the normalisation of bilateral ties).
Abe Shinzo sought to get panda diplomacy back on track during a visit to Beijing last week in another sign that China’s relations with Japan have warmed considerably.
The improvement is said to have been helped by Donald Trump’s trade policy (China never likes to have more than one enemy at the same time, one diplomat told The Economist).
Media outlets from both countries have been heaping praise on “a new era of cooperation”, with the Asahi Shimbun quoting Abe in a front-page headline proclaiming that relations have reached a “historic turning point”.
Evidence of the rapprochement: an agreement that the Chinese will dispatch two new pandas to the Land of the Rising Sun (taking the total to 11, each costing Japan $1 million a year to lease).
Abe brought a huge delegation of diplomats and business executives, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reporting that nearly 500 commercial deals and agreements were signed during the three-day trip, most notably a $30 billion currency swap that was suspended in 2013.
The Chinese are also said to have agreed to consider lifting restrictions on Japanese food imports imposed that were imposed after the Fukushima disaster. The two sides also announced the resumption of talks on jointly developing gas fields in the East China Sea.
Other details have been harder to pin down, although the media has reported that the Japanese will work towards setting up a renminbi clearing bank and that Japanese firms will get broader access to the China market.
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