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CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - A Taiwanese plane arrived in the Chinese city of Chengdu on Monday to pick up a pair of giant pandas, a goodwill gift from Beijing and the latest sign of improving ties between the political rivals.
Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names said together mean "unite," will be flown to Taiwan on Tuesday with steamed corn buns and fresh bamboo in their luggage and a standby supply of air-sickness pills.
China had offered the pandas as a goodwill gift in 2006 as part of a charm offensive after decades of saber rattling. Taiwan's then anti-China president declined the gift.
Beijing has given pandas to nine countries, including Japan, North Korea, the United States and the former Soviet Union, since 1957.
China-Taiwan ties have improved vastly in recent months after the election of China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.
"It's clearly part of the longer rapprochement, a nice symbol," Brad Glosserman, executive director of the U.S.-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS, said of the pandas.
Last week Taiwan and China launched direct daily passenger flights, new shipping routes and postal links for the first time in six decades. China has also offered Taiwan investors on the mainland $19 billion in financing over the next three years amid the global economic downturn.
But many Taiwan citizens would prefer China remove missiles aimed at the island and let it join international organizations such as the United Nations instead of offering money or animals, experts say.
"It's not a milestone, not a breakthrough, just a continuation," said Lin Chong-pin, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (KMT) fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
China claims Taiwan as part of "one China," a notion many in Taiwan resist, especially the opposition Democratic Progressive Party that favors the island's formal declaration of independence from China.
Pandas can only be found in the wild in China where they are rebounding from the brink of extinction, but not yet out of the woods -- in large part because of difficulties in producing cubs.
The 4-year-old pandas have been living at a breeding base in Sichuan for the past several months. Their previous home, the Wolong Nature Reserve, was damaged in the earthquake that struck southwest China on May 12, killing more than 80,000 people.
"I am reluctant to let them leave here," Wang Xiaofang, owner of a shop only several hundred meters away from the base, told Xinhua news agency.
"Their departure for Taiwan represents the mainland people's wishes to promote cross-Strait relations," said Wang. "I hope they will bring goodwill to Taiwan."
After a month in quarantine, the pandas will face up to 30,000 eager visitors per day at Taipei Zoo.
Additional reporting by Ralph Jennings in Taipei; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeremy Laurence