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ITS endangered status still a big worry, the magnificence of the giant panda -- an adult reaches 1.8m long, 1.2m tall and 160kg in weight -- has been elevated to that of an influential beast capable of stoking earth-shattering symbolic, nationalistic, political, diplomatic and conservation passions.
Other countries embrace tigers, lions, elephants, springboks or eagles (even if the mammals are not indigenous in the slightest) as symbols of national unity and aspirations but only in China does the panda exist, fully optimised as a fabulous symbolism that goes beyond its stately subsistence.
Again, because of its uniqueness, the panda is exalted by China, not only as a mammal mollycoddled from birth because of its frail maturation (the species' availability is restricted to between 1,600 and 3,000, depending on which wildlife conservation report one reads) but, once fully matured, also as an animal of wide-ranging diffuser of global problems.
And because of the panda's iconic status (the World Wildlife Fund uses a panda as its official mascot), China can leverage on the animal into an effective bargaining chip to boost bilateral or trade ties (as it did with Malaysia with the loan of two baby pandas), or to assuage diplomatic tensions (as it did with gifts to Taiwan in 2005) or to ease concerns over China's domestic issues (loans to American and Japanese zoos in the 1970s).
Indeed, the panda, for all its threat of extinction, is an animal with such inherent power that no other mammal can match its radiating sway, reach and pull. Even Hollywood has embraced the panda as a hero of epic proportions in Kung Fu Panda, their interpretation of the animal as a comically lumbering but ultimately, good-hearted saviour.
"Pandas are treasured animals for China and their decision to allow us to have a pair is a great symbol of the warm and close relations that we have with China," Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said during a web chat on NSTLive yesterday.
Najib's view of the panda loan is a huge understatement. Consider the bigger picture: Malaysia's symbiotic relationship with China goes back to ancient times, in particular the mid-15th century voyages of Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho according to local history books) to this part of the world when he established a protectorate with Malacca to top off the diplomatic and trade ties.
Then there's the fabled inaugural trip to China by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein in 1974: the late prime minister shook hands on a slew of agreements with Mao Zedong, the country's supreme leader, including a deal not to aid the Communist Party of Malaya prior to its dissolution in 1989.
And now, in the third millennium, Najib, in two official tours, has re-energised Malaysia's natural ties with China to boost further rewarding multilateral, trade and friendship ties.
Malaysia's solid bond with China recognises the lineage of our large Chinese community. These days, it is not only the Chinese of direct lineage who count but also of many Malays and Indians who are products of cross-marriages who count China and the Chinese heritage as part of their ancestry.
This lineage has propelled Malaysia to become China's largest Asean trading partner since 2008, not only by imports and exports of the quintessential Chinese manufacturing products, but also of Malaysians trekking to China as a core trading base and the Chinese adopting Malaysia as an extent of advance education, employment and familiar surroundings.
Given the diplomatic, trade and people ties, there's undoubtedly an uncanny "yin and yang" balance in the Malaysia-China bond, seen by many as "complementary opposites", the ideal of balance.
The giant panda, in its perfect black and white configuration, represents the yin and yang concept in the Malaysia-China ties.
A symbiotic relationship underscored by China's loan of a pair of giant pandas to Malaysia.