USAThe latest chapter in the long story of panda diplomacy was written at Washington’s National Zoo, where the Chinese government agreed to lengthen the “loan” of popular panda pair Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for another five years. Actually, the loan is conditioned on whether they produce a new heir or heiress to the cuteness of panda-dom in the next two years;  one or both could be exchanged for more fecund substitutes.

They have a good track record: Washington native Tai Shan, born in 2005, headed back to China last year.

This was a big enough deal for President Barack Obama to mention it at an elaborate state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

“Today, we’ve shown that our governments can work together, as well, for our mutual benefit,” Obama told the glittering gathering. “And that includes this bit of news: Under a new agreement, our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas.”

PANDAIn the United States, panda diplomacy started soon after President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. But the idea that China might be able to export, or at least loan, this cuddly symbol to further diplomatic ends may date back to the Tang Dynasty, when 7th century Chinese Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of pandas to Japan.