From Ping Pong to Pandas — A Timeline of U.S.-Chinese Diplomacy

Although the United States and China have experienced rising tensions and escalations in foreign relations since the 1950s, their joint practice of diplomacy over time has always been the olive branch that ties the two together. Whether it be by the Nixon-era Ping Pong Diplomacy or the recent Panda Diplomacy, the U.S. and China have generally been able to find a common ground in the social and cultural sphere. Yet over the past couple years, this common ground has begun to crack, with political tension via the Trade War, debate over Taiwanese sovereignty, the Russian-Ukraine invasion, and more leading to a weakening connection. And with the recent Chinese repossession of the U.S.-leased pandas, the small bridge that has long existed between the two continues to deteriorate. 

The history of U.S.-Sino relations is far from a long one, with China’s rise to power on the global stage culminating in the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, and their blossoming entrance to Western foreign relations emerging throughout the 1970s. But in the years prior, U.S.-Chinese relations were anything but booning. With the U.S.-imposed embargo on the PRC throughout the Korean War in the 1950s, the United States recognized China as an “aggressor”, contradicting domestic values of democracy. Yet as Chinese relations with the Soviet Union weakened following a series of border disputes, and as the U.S. began multilateral peace discussions with North Vietnam, both the United States and China saw an opportunity to build a mutually beneficial relationship, and so was born Ping Pong Diplomacy. 

On April 6, 1971, the U.S. National Table Tennis team received an invitation to visit the Chinese capital. Just four days later, the athletes became the first American delegation to be received at Beijing since 1949, a staggering advancement of U.S.-Sino relations that encouraged swift action to solidify ties between the two. Three months later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made an incognito trip to China, and that October, the United Nations formally recognized the People’s Republic and awarded them a seat on the UN Security Council, one that incidentally had belonged to the Republic of China, or Taiwan. That next year, in February of 1972, President Nixon made a landmark visit to China, signing the Shanghai Communiqué, a joint statement on the mutual desire for world peace, and meeting with Chairman Mao in an unprecedented shift towards positive U.S.-China relations. This summit promised not only closer ties with Beijing, but also a mutual gift: two Chinese giant pandas to be sent to an American zoo, with two U.S. musk oxen being sent to the East in return. 

Ever since, the pandas have remained a symbol of the still-standing relationship between the two global powers. Cui Tiankai, former Ambassador of China to the United States, said in 2013, “Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.” Even after the shift from gifting to leasing the bears under President Deng Xiaoping’s 1984 modification of the standard at the Los Angeles Olympics, the U.S. has always had Chinese pandas. Tensions have been escalating between the two nations for the entirety of their relationship, and especially in the last ten years, the plausibility of upcoming strife if not full-blown conflict is one that seems to be drawing ever-nearer. And yet through all of the issues of the past decade, through the Trump Administration-era Trade War to the near recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty to the paralleling threats of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while U.S.-Sino relations may have outwardly deteriorated, the U.S. has always had the pandas. 

But all that changed this past Tuesday, when on November 7th, China formerly repossessed all of the U.S.-leased giant panda bears from the D.C. National Zoo. Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji have been at the D.C. Zoo for over 20 years, and their transportation back to the mainland comes after the end of a three-year agreement between D.C. and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Already, the panda bears from the San Diego and Memphis Zoos have been returned, and the only remaining pandas in the United States, at the Atlanta Zoo, are set to be returned early next year. 

For many, this transition is symbolic of a shift towards the utmost escalation of the U.S.-Chinese conflict. Many Americans have viewed this as a political move, with Chinese repossession of the pandas acting as a social representation of the deterioration of the U.S.-Sino relations. But for others, this movement is one that is not entirely out of place. In Memphis, after allegations of neglect and malnourishment were made against the zoo, China moved to return YaYa back to Beijing for safety and health purposes, and LeLe died of inadequate health care just days before the transport. In Thailand, a panda suddenly died of organ failure just months before it was scheduled to be sent back to China. And in South Korea, Japan, the Netherlands, and Singapore, their Chinese pandas are either set to be returned in the coming months, or have already been shipped back to Beijing. 

The issue of Panda Diplomacy is not entirely black and white. While this may outwardly seem to be a political move by Beijing, it could equally be a movement by animal conservations in concern for the wellbeing of the pandas in an unnatural habitat. Chinese netizens, through all the returns of internationally-leased pandas over the past years, have celebrated their homecoming. Animal rights activists have spoken in favor of the pandas returning to China. And with the recent talks between President Biden and President Xi presenting the possibility of a panda maybe being sent to the U.S. in San Diego, it seems that not all hope is lost for Panda Diplomacy. At the end of the day, it is possible this return could be nothing but an interest in the panda’s preferred station in a natural and safe habitat. But it could all the same be another move on the chessboard, another escalating step in this dangerous game.


Sophia Berg is from Gilbert, Arizona, studying English.

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