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Politics

China's panda 'diplomats' have tough job to do in Indonesia

Warm fuzzies may not be enough to thaw icy relations

One of the two Chinese pandas leased to Indonesia (Photo by Jun Suzuki)

JAKARTA -- At odds with Indonesia over territory, China has launched its trademark charm offensive: flying in two giant pandas in a show of goodwill.

The animals, named Cai Tao and Hu Chun, caught a ride on a Garuda Indonesia flight from the Chinese city of Chengdu to Jakarta on Thursday morning. So far, however, their arrival has generated relatively little fanfare, suggesting the rift between the countries might not be so easily closed.

The panda lease agreement was sealed in 2010, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was Indonesia's president. Sun Weide, the charge d'affaires at the Chinese Embassy, announced the animals' imminent arrival last Friday at a news conference at the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry. He called the pandas a symbol of stronger bilateral cooperation.

Indonesian officials, too, are hoping the move will help put the relationship back on track.

The relations deteriorated last year, when Indonesian authorities tried to seize a Chinese fishing boat operating in the country's exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands -- at the southern tip of the South China Sea. The China Coast Guard obstructed the patrol and freed the boat. 

Indonesia lodged a protest, and it was none other than Sun who argued that the waters in question are a traditional Chinese fishing ground.

The dispute appears to be affecting economic ties. The two countries plan to jointly build a high-speed railway connecting Jakarta and Bandung. But while they have signed a financing contract, there has been almost no progress on construction. 

Cai Tao and Hu Chun arrive at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, on the outskirts of Jakarta, on Sept. 28. (Photo by Jun Suzuki)

Anti-China sentiment has been building, fanned by a rumor that some 20 million Chinese laborers were working at a power plant construction site and elsewhere in Indonesia. Officials denied the speculation.

All of this may explain why, the day after Sun's news conference, the pandas garnered little coverage in major Indonesian newspapers.

China's "panda diplomacy" has been received far more warmly in other Southeast Asian countries. In 2012, the Monetary Authority of Singapore issued commemorative coins. When pandas arrived in Malaysia two years later, the country issued special postage stamps.

Cai Tao and Hu Chun are due to debut in public at Taman Safari Bogor, a theme park in West Java, as early as November. Sources say Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Chinese President Xi Jinping may visit the safari park together, to underscore the symbolism.

The question is whether the critters' knack for melting hearts will change Indonesian public perceptions of Beijing.

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