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China's offer of 2 pandas puts Taiwan in a tough spot

WOLONG RESERVE, China—The latest weapons in the tussle between China and Taiwan are cuddly and adorable and do little all day but chew bamboo and frolic.

China has offered two giant pandas to Taiwan as a goodwill gesture. It has named the two pandas Tuantuan and Yuanyuan, a play on the Chinese word "tuanyuan," which means "reunion."

Taiwan's leaders are squirming, looking for a way to postpone or reject the offer without annoying the Taiwanese public. Opinion polls indicate many Taiwanese want the pandas. A decision by Taipei is expected on April 3.

The two giant pandas might seem a simple token, but a history of diplomatic skirmishes between Beijing and Taipei has turned them into anything but a black-and-white matter. Anyone who doubts their symbolic power needs only to observe the armed guards offering 24-hour protection to the two pandas at this reserve in the Sichuan province highlands.

Caretakers at the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center say they worry that a supporter of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian might try to harm the pandas.

"He might send someone to do something to the bears," said Chen Yingbing, a guide at the research center.

China's "panda ploy" has become the matter of newspaper editorials on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Citing legal nuances, supporters of Taiwan's Chen say acceptance of the pandas might signal capitulation to the communist mainland. Taiwan is a self-governing democratic island and is fending off China's demand for reunification.

"It has become a political dilemma for President Chen. He's been put on the defensive mode," said Chao Chien-min, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. "It doesn't look like our government will let these animals in."

China announced the offer last May, saying it was a goodwill gesture following the historic visit to the mainland by Lien Chan, leader of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party. Lien's party is more accommodating of Beijing than the independence-leaning administration of Chen Shui-bian.

The panda offer marked a sharp change of tack for Beijing, which has 700 short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan and has said it has the right to take the island by force.

Early in January, Beijing announced that it had selected two pandas for delivery to Taipei in June. Pandas Yuanyuan, a male, and Tuantuan, a female, are among a spate of births at this reserve more than 5,000 feet high in a mountainous region of bamboo forests, the result of new reproduction techniques.

China says it's preparing the 17-month-old pandas for their home in Taiwan by having caretakers sing to them in the Minnan dialect spoken on the island.

Once known as No. 16 and No. 19, the pandas were given names in a televised extravaganza on Jan. 28, on the eve of the lunar new year, when some 107 million Chinese voted through cellular phone text messaging among 50 or so proposed names.

Mainlanders support the idea of the gift.

"Pandas are our national treasure, and they should be shared," said Zhou Qiang, a bank worker, as he toured the panda center. "Sooner or later, pandas will go to Taiwan."

Many people in Taiwan, among them children, are excited. The Taipei Zoo, one of three facilities vying for the pandas, is building a $4 million facility.

Eric Tsao, a curator at the zoo, suggested Taiwan might lessen tensions surrounding the panda offer by ditching the names, sidestepping the reunification issue.

Senior officials in Taipei declined to comment on the panda brouhaha, but several groups supporting the president suggested that he issue a curt "no thanks."

The panda offer is a "cannonball against Taiwan," the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Washington lobby that supports Taiwan's independence, said in a newsletter last month. "Taiwan should refuse to fall into China's trap."

Chen supporters say the rare giant panda is governed by international convention on the trade of endangered species and that the "importing country" must offer its consent. If no consent is sought, then Taiwan can't defend its claim that it isn't part of China.

China says it doesn't need to ask consent because Taiwan isn't independent.

Giant pandas are among the Earth's rarest creatures. Barely 1,500 are believed to exist in the wild, with some 180 in China's captive breeding facilities.

The Wolong reserve is the premier facility for captive breeding. While some of the artificial insemination science is advanced, caretakers also use more mundane methods, such as playing audio and videotapes of giant pandas in heat.

"It works," said Chen, the guide, although the videotapes are on a revolving loop since panda sex doesn't last long. "It's less than one minute. A few seconds is enough."

Pandas have long served China as ambassadors. In 1972, Chairman Mao Zedong sent a pair of pandas to Washington to honor the Sino-U.S. breakthrough leading to diplomatic relations. Now, besides the zoo in the nation's capital, zoos in Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis, Tenn., also have giant pandas.

The mainland's chief spokesman on Taiwan affairs, Li Weiyi, said last month that the delivery of the pandas will "fulfill the long-cherished desire of Taiwan compatriots to see the pandas with their own eyes and enjoy the pandas' loveliness."

But Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu urged islanders to travel to China to see pandas.

"If you really like the pandas, don't let them come to Taiwan but rather go there to see them," Lu told reporters in Taiwan.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-PANDAS

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