What is behind the oddly compelling and mesmerizing power of the panda? Is it the fleeting and fragile reproductive ability, confined to an ovulation period of only three days per year? Or is it the big, doleful eyes and soft, round figures the world finds so irresistible? Regardless, these precious animals (of which there are fewer than 1,600 left in the wild) have the ability to command the attention of entire cities -- world capitals, no less -- as people from Washington, D.C. to Singapore gaze raptly into multi-angled, 24-hour video feeds to watch the movements of their country's visiting pandas.
Since the late 1950s, the Chinese government has made the gifting and "gift loaning" of its very rare giant panda bears an unexpectedly influential component of its foreign policy. A study recently released by Environmental Practice, titled "Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft 'Cuddly' Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation," takes a look at the evolution of the highly effective influence of China's panda diplomacy over the past six decades. According to the study's authors, we are currently in the throes of the "third phase" of panda diplomacy, during which "panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and technology." Whether to build strategic alliances or trade relationships, China's pandas are much beloved, charming recalcitrant neighbors and ideological adversaries across the globe.
What follows is a collection of photographs capturing some of the more interesting moments in panda diplomacy, from London to Malaysia, the Cold War to the Obama administration. As for the forecast on the panda front: There's only more bear-for-trade diplomacy to come, researchers say.
Above, Yuan Zi, one of the two giant pandas that arrived last winter in France from China has a snack on Aug. 23, 2012, at Beauval zoo in Saint-Aignan. After years of panda-deal negotiations between China and France, Yuan Zi and Huan Huan left southwest China for Saint-Aignan in Jan. 2012.