WASHINGTON, May 29 — China will send two young giant pandas to Washington, the National Zoo said today, months after the zoo returned three of the bears amid heightened tensions between the two global superpowers.

The announcement follows increased engagement between Washington and Beijing that has put ties on a steadier footing since relations hit historic lows last year.

China’s ambassador to the United States Xie Feng told Reuters today that the new panda cooperation agreement was “a very good sign” for US-China relations.

“To deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples, today I am very glad to share with you some good news,” he said during remarks at the zoo, announcing that the two pandas named Bao Li and Qing Bao will be headed to Washington.

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The Smithsonian’s National Zoo said in a statement that it will welcome the pair of pandas by the end of the year.

“We’re thrilled to announce the next chapter of our breeding and conservation partnership begins by welcoming two new bears, including a descendent of our beloved panda family, to Washington, DC,” said Brandie Smith, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

“This historic moment is proof positive our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact,” Smith added.

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Bao Li is a two-year-old male. His mother was born at the institute in 2013 and his grandparents Tian and Mei Xiang lived at NZCBI from 2000 to 2023. Qing Bao is a two-year-old female born to Qing Qing and mother Jia Mei.

Once they arrive, the pair of pandas will be quarantined for 30 days and then have a few more weeks to settle into their new habitat, the zoo said. A public debut date has yet to be set.

The departure of the three pandas from the zoo last November as loan agreements lapsed left Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta as the only one in the United States with giant pandas, and that loan deal is set to expire later this year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted that he was open to sending more of the “envoys of friendship” to the US after meeting President Joe Biden in November in California, where the two men agreed to step up communication despite an intensifying geopolitical rivalry.

Xi’s remarks prompted the White House to say the US would “absolutely welcome” the bears.

China’s communist government has long used “panda diplomacy” to enhance the country’s soft power, lending the large but cuddly-looking black-and-white bears to zoos in various countries over the decades as goodwill animal ambassadors.

Today’s announcement is a clear sign of Beijing’s approval of stabilised ties with Washington.

Beijing presented two giant pandas as gifts to the US in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s historic Cold War visit to the country.

Other pandas have since been loaned to the US for research and educational purposes, and the bears have perennially been a top attraction at zoos, drawing millions of adoring visitors.

China’s Wildlife Conservation Association said in February that it was working with the National Zoo on arrangements that could bring more pandas back to the US, including to the San Diego Zoo. — Reuters