TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan is rolling out the bamboo carpet for two superstars from China, a sometimes political rival which has taken a softer, more cuddly approach to relations of late.
Taipei Zoo has prepared a penthouse-sized outdoor garden decorated with ferns and a footbridge, a bedroom with all-season air conditioning and imported bamboo to welcome Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, a pair of Chinese giant pandas.
The pandas, whose names said together mean "unite," are set to reach this zoo compound on Tuesday as a goodwill gift from China, which seeks to unite politically with Taiwan.
"Children think they're cute, plump and should be conserved," said Tsai Hsin-hua, a teacher who escorted 150 screaming fourth-graders through the panda zone on Thursday as part of a zoo demo to see how crowds behave around the bears.
In a sign of the times, the zoo has done everything for the animal ambassadors, which China first offered in 2006 but which Taiwan's then anti-China president declined.
It spent T$300 million ($9.24 million) on the enclosure and a four-storey panda theme exhibition next door and plans to spend about T$10 million per year on upkeep. The pair will be attended by some 35 zoo staff, as well as numerous other volunteers.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
But Ma Ying-jeou, the new China-friendly Taiwan President, has welcomed the pandas as part of an effort to ease tensions between the two sides since he took office in May.
China has given pandas to nine countries, including Japan, North Korea, the United States and the former Soviet Union, since 1957.
To keep the pandas calm while giving as many people as possible a chance to see them, the zoo will ask visitors to make sure no one lingers by the cage for more than a couple of seconds or uses camera flashes.
About 1,400 people, including 900 children, passed the empty enclosure during the Thursday demo.
"Today cooperation was pretty good, and if everyone keeps moving like that we can get 30,000 people through per day," said Eric Tsao, a zoo curator and one of 35 panda staffers.
But even panda diplomacy has its off moments.
Chinese pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-ling, a goodwill gesture to mark former U.S. president Richard Nixon's opening of relations with China, disappointed the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., when they died without producing a cub that survived to adulthood.
About 1,000 of the endangered animals live in the wild bamboo forests of central and western China. Taiwan will donate a native deer and goat to China in exchange.
Editing by Bill Tarrant