U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick cuddled a 5-month-old panda cub Wednesday to highlight shared U.S. and Chinese affection for the furry animals amid tensions over trade, human rights and other issues. Dressed in a blue smock and plastic gloves, Zoellick held the female cub Jing Jing at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in China's southwest and laughed as the cub licked his neck and nipped at his chin.
"For more than 30 years, pandas have been a very practical symbol of the conservation relationship between the United States and China," Zoellick told reporters later, standing beside an outdoor pen as two adult pandas wrestled inside.
The center in Chengdu, capital of the province of Sichuan, the panda's natural habitat, is part of efforts to breed the rare, endangered animals in captivity. The government says a record 21 surviving panda cubs were born in captivity last year.
Zoellick noted the American public's affection for pandas given to U.S. zoos by Beijing. He joked that tickets to see the new panda cub, Tai Shan, at Washington's National Zoo were so hard to get that he came to Chengdu to avoid the line.
Beijing also has offered a panda pair to rival Taiwan in an effort to boost sentiment on the self-ruled island in favor of uniting with the communist mainland. Taiwan's government hasn't said whether it will accept the gift. Asked what he thought about the offer to Taiwan, Zoellick said, "I'll leave that to Beijing and Taiwan."
The levity of the panda visit contrasted with the more serious purpose of Zoellick's China mission: to hold a dialogue on the governments wide-ranging and at times conflicting international interests.
Relations between the two countries have been strained over the past year by American frustration with China's soaring trade surplus and unease over Beijing's military buildup and its energy cooperation with Iran, Venezuela and other governments Washington dislikes.
Despite that, both governments have worked hard to increase cooperation. At their meeting in Beijing Tuesday, Premier Wen Jiabao told Zoellick that China wants to improve their "strategic dialogue" and build "mutual trust."
Among the issues Zoellick discussed with Wen and senior foreign ministry officials were Iran's nuclear program and other security issues as well as economic issues. Zoellick said he stressed China's role as a "stakeholder" in the new economy and global community.
Zoellick said he also held meetings with Chinese and American non-governmental groups working on developing the rule of law in China. He was due to leave China later Wednesday for Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum, reports the AP. N.U.