TAIPEI (Reuters) - A pair of giant pandas from China’s fog-shrouded mountains reached an excited but wary Taiwan on Tuesday, a symbol of improved relations between the longtime political rivals who once stood at the brink of war.
Panda-decorated baggage trucks drove out to collect the crates carrying Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan from the cargo hold of a jumbo jet that landed at north Taiwan’s major airport.
After arriving at the Taipei city zoo in a truck with police escorts, the pandas, whose names said together mean “unite,” were taken to a T$300 million ($9.24 million) hillside complex where they should attract huge crowds after a month in quarantine.
“Pandas are a diplomatic tool to win over a place’s public and make them think China is a friendly country,” said George Hou, a mass communications lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan.
“But the average child who doesn’t know this background will just ask whether they’re cute or not.”
Giving away pandas is seen as China’s most popular use of soft power toward Taiwan since 2005, when it began making offers instead of military threats to impress the self-ruled island that Beijing considers its own.
China has claimed Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. It has vowed to bring the island under its rule, by force if necessary, but ties have improved since China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May.
Beijing has given pandas to nine countries including Japan, the United States and the former Soviet Union since 1957.
China had offered the pandas to Taiwan as a goodwill gift in 2006. Taiwan’s then anti-China president refused to accept them.
“The pandas take 1.3 billion mainland people’s blessings to Taiwan and will sow the seeds of peace, unity and fraternal love there,” Zheng Lizhong, deputy chief of the Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a farewell ceremony in Sichuan province.
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 Taiwan zoo, which will be their new home, will try to mate the pair and may return any cub for tender loving care back in China, a zoo official said last month.
After the quarantine period ends, as many as 30,000 visitors will be allowed to file past each day to see the pandas’ garden-like complex. Vendors are looking to make money by selling look-alike stuffed animals and mobile phone ornaments.
Tensions have brought China and Taiwan intermittently to the brink of war over the last six decades in what is considered potentially one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia.
Building on better ties, the two sides last week launched direct daily passenger flights, new shipping routes and postal links for the first time in six decades. China has also offered its Taiwan investors $19 billion in financing over the next three years due to the global economic crisis.
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.
“I would be careful about saying any single gesture will sway people,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director or the U.S.-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS. “The people of Taiwan are smart. They’re also cynical.”
The island’s anti-China main opposition party said on Tuesday the pandas symbolized Beijing’s intent to control Taiwan, and one party legislator told reporters he would advise his relatives against visiting the animals.
The 4-year-old pandas have been living at a breeding base in Sichuan, neighboring Tibet, for several months. Their previous home, the Wolong Nature Reserve, was damaged in the earthquake that struck Sichuan on May 12, killing more than 80,000 people.
Additional reporting by Yu Le and Nick Macfie, Editing by Dean Yates