WASHINGTON — While there were plenty of major global issues on the agenda for President Joe Biden’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, the suggestion of new pandas to the United States was not on the list and did not come up during those talks, according to a senior administration official.
So when Xi announced at a dinner with business leaders later in the evening that China was “ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation,” it came as a surprise to the White House.
Xi indicated that China would “do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties” between our two nations, and he even referred to the San Diego Zoo as a potential home for future pandas.
The U.S. viewed the comments as a “goodwill gesture,” the senior administration official said, after Biden and Xi had spent more than four hours together in their first face-to-face meeting in a year. The official said the panda news was not planned or choreographed beforehand with the White House.
Xi referred to the pandas as “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,” but he did not share additional details on when or how the next steps would take place.
Three giant pandas left the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., last week, traveling from Dulles International Airport via FedEx plane to Chengdu, China, on a roughly 19-hour journey.
“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said Wednesday.
There are still some pandas in the U.S. at the Atlanta Zoo, but they are set to depart next year if that deal is not extended. The panda agreements are made between the Chinese government and American zoos, without the direct involvement of the U.S. government.
The San Diego Zoo, for its part, told NBC News that it did not have any kind of heads up that Xi would refer to them in his remarks.
“We are excited to hear of President Xi’s commitment in continuing the giant panda conservation efforts between our two countries, and his attention to the wish of Californians and the San Diego Zoo to see the return of giant pandas,” said Paul A. Baribault, the president and chief executive of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
“Conservation starts with people, and our team is committed to working with our partners to welcome the next generation of giant pandas to our zoo, continuing our joint efforts in wildlife conservation, and inspiring millions worldwide to protect the planet we all share,” he said.
Two pandas left San Diego and returned to China in 2019 after many years there.