Chinese pandas arrive in Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - December 23, 2008

"Tuan Tuan" and "Yuan Yuan" set down at the Taipei airport after a three-hour flight from Chengdu in Sichuan province, as Taiwanese around the island watched spellbound on local television.

Taken together, the pandas' names mean reunion - underscoring Chinese hopes that the animals' arrival in Taiwan will spur unity between the sides, 59 years after they split amid civil war.

Tuesday's panda arrival follows by a week the initiation of expanded transportation links across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait and other signs of friendship between Beijing and Taipei.

The pandas' voyage was minutely chronicled by Taiwan's effervescent media. Newspapers carried front-page photographs of the pandas in their native Sichuan habitat and TV stations followed the flight of the green-liveried Eva Airways jet carrying the animals to Taipei.

The pandas' arrival in Taiwan - more than three years in the making - symbolizes a new spirit across the Taiwan Strait.

Since his inauguration seven months ago, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has moved aggressively to link Taiwan closer to the mainland, opening the door to a substantially increased flow of Chinese tourists and sanctioning a more liberalized regime for bilateral investments.

His steps contrast sharply with predecessor Chen Shui-bian's efforts to emphasize Taiwan's political and cultural separateness, which enraged Beijing, and prompted it to reaffirm long-standing threats to use military force against the democratic island it claims as its own.

After their arrival at Taipei airport, the pandas were prepared for the short trip to the city's zoo, where they are expected to remain in quarantine for 30 days.

Eager onlookers awaited their arrival, though it was likely all they would see was the red, panda-ornamented tarpaulin covering their cages.

Assuming they are disease-free, Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan - and their new, two-story zoo habitat - will be unveiled to the public during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in late January.

China expects big benefits from its panda largesse.

For more than five decades, Beijing has used panda diplomacy to make friends and influence people in countries ranging from the United States to the former Soviet Union.

The giant panda is unique to China and serves as an unofficial national mascot. China regularly sends the animals abroad as a sign of warm diplomatic relations or to mark breakthroughs in ties.

The offer to send Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan to Taiwan was first made in 2005 when the pro-independence Chen was still in charge. Citing various bureaucratic obstacles, his government rejected it, but after Ma's inauguration in May, the way was cleared to reverse that decision.

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