Chinese pandas arrive in Taiwan in charm offensive
By PETER ENAV,Associated Press Writer AP - Wednesday, December 24
TAIPEI, Taiwan - Two Chinese pandas whose combined names mean "reunion" arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday, the latest installment in a Beijing charm offensive aimed at convincing the island's people to embrace their Communist rival.
A male panda, "Tuan Tuan," and his female companion, "Yuan Yuan," set down at the Taipei airport after a three-hour flight from southwestern China, as millions of Taiwanese watched spellbound on local television. Chinese pandas are usually loaned abroad in pairs, with hopes that they will mate.
Knots of eager onlookers at the zoo waited to see the couple _ the first-ever pandas to inhabit the island _ though all they could see was the red, panda-ornamented tarpaulin covering the pandas' cages.
The giant panda is unique to China and serves as an unofficial national mascot. China regularly sends the animals abroad as a sign of warm diplomatic relations or to mark breakthroughs in ties.
Front-page photographs of the pandas in their native Sichuan province habitat were splashed across Taiwanese papers Tuesday and TV stations followed their flight to Taipei with breathless updates.
The pandas' arrival _ more than three years in the making _ comes amid rapidly improving relations between Taiwan and China, which split amid civil war in 1949.
Only a week ago they initiated daily air and direct maritime links across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait, and several days later China agreed to loan 130 billion yuan ($19 billion) to mainland-based Taiwanese companies struggling to keep afloat in the global economic slowdown.
The rapid-fire Chinese moves underscore the determination of the Beijing government to leverage Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's readiness to turn his back on his predecessor's contentious anti-China policies _ and move closer to Beijing's ultimate goal of China-Taiwan unity.
Since his inauguration seven months ago, Ma has moved aggressively to link Taiwan closer to the mainland, opening the door to a substantially increased flow of Chinese tourists and sanctioning a more liberalized regime for bilateral investments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
His steps contrast sharply with predecessor Chen Shui-bian's efforts to emphasize Taiwan's political and cultural separateness, which enraged Beijing, and prompted it to reaffirm long-standing threats to use military force against the democratic island it claims as its own.
Tuesday's voyage for Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan began at the Chengdu airport, where the two animals were loaded on a green-liveried charter operated by Taiwan's Eva Airways.
After the three-hour flight across southern China and the Taiwan Strait, Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan were taken from Taipei airport for the short trip to the city's zoo, where they are expected to remain in quarantine for 30 days.
The pandas _ and their new, two-story zoo habitat _ will be unveiled to the public during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in late January.
China expects big benefits from its panda largesse.
For more than five decades, Beijing has used panda diplomacy to make friends and influence people in countries ranging from the United States to the former Soviet Union.
The offer to send Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan to Taiwan was first made in 2005 when the pro-independence Chen was still in charge. Citing various bureaucratic obstacles, his government rejected it, but after Ma's inauguration in May, the way was cleared to reverse that decision.
While most Taiwanese support Ma's panda stand and his overall policy of greater China engagement, they still reject unity with the mainland, seeing it as a direct threat to their hard-won democratic freedoms.
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