Pandas Become Diplomatic Casualties

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It was supposed to be a goodwill gesture.

After the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of her Japanese city last year, Sendai Mayor Emiko Okuyama asked Beijing if it would loan a pair of giant pandas to the local Yagiyama Zoo to cheer up young kids in the Tohoku region.

In a meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, China's Premier Wen Jiabao said he would strongly consider it.

Yet, a year later, that panda diplomacy has been stalled by an escalating dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. Michiya Ujiie, who is spearheading Sendai's efforts, says he has not spoken with his Chinese counterparts in months.

"Neither side has suggested suspending the exchange altogether," Ujiie said. "But under these circumstances, I don't expect to get a call at all."

Sendai residents aren't so eager now to accept accepting China's national treasures. Ujiie said the city has received dozens of emails from residents urging officials to halt the panda luring efforts, saying Sendai should not negotiate with a country that holds so much animosity towards Japan.

City officials hoped to firm up plans to bring the pandas to Sendai at an event marking the 40 th anniversary of normalization between Japan and China this month, but Beijing cancelled the celebration.

This isn't the first time the cuddly creatures have been dragged into diplomatic disputes.

In June, nationalist Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara quipped the newly born panda cub at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo should be named "Sen-sen" or "Kaku-kaku," referring to the Japanese name for the disputed islands, Senkaku. China calls the rocks Diaoyu.

The cub died six days later, but its body remains in a freezer on zoo grounds, nearly three months later. China maintains full ownership of the pandas it loans out, but Tokyo officials say they have not received any word from Beijing about what to do with the frozen creature.

China and Japan both claim the tiny, uninhabited archipelago in the East China Sea. Tensions between the two countries have escalated since Tokyo nationalized the islands earlier this month, setting off a wave of anti-Japanese protests throughout China.