WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China is extending its so-called panda diplomacy agreement with the United States, letting giant pandas stay at the Washington national zoo for another five years, a Chinese conservation official said on Wednesday.
"This is a great opportunity ... to advance our friendship," Zang Chunlin, secretary-general of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, told reporters.
Moments after President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao finished a White House news briefing, Zang met with journalists in a hotel a few blocks from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian lolled and snacked in the afternoon sunshine.
A signing ceremony to extend the just-completed decade-long agreement is set for Thursday morning at the zoo.
In place since 2000, the cooperative agreement between the two countries "loaned" a panda pair to the United States for $10 million for 10 years, with the money to go to panda conservation research in China.
The extended agreement runs through December 2015 and is valued at $500,000 per year, Zang said through an interpreter.
China plans to send experts on anesthesia, mating, breeding and cub-raising to the United States, Zang said, adding, "We hope to see some good results at an early date."
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have already produced one cub, the immensely popular Tai Shan, born on July 9, 2005, and returned to China in February 2010 after his departure was twice delayed.
"Panda cubs belong to China and when they become a certain age they must be returned," Zang said. He noted the "very touching farewell activities" that attended Tai Shan's departure from Washington.
He stressed that Tai Shan is living a "happy life" in a "paradise of the returned pandas" in China but did not directly answer a question about whether Tai Shan might return to the United States.
Asked whether any cubs born in the United States under the extended agreement might stay in the country for the full five years, Zang replied, "As for cubs born in the United States, stipulations have been stipulated in the agreement."
The national zoo is watching Mei Xiang for signs she is ready to mate. As of January 13, there was "no significant progress" for the female, while Tian Tian "had another consistent week of rut behaviors," according to the zoo's website here .
Pandas are difficult to breed because females ovulate only once a year and can only become pregnant during that two- or three-day period.
Modern Sino-U.S. panda diplomacy began in 1972 when China donated giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States soon after President Richard Nixon's visit to China. This first pair produced no cubs that survived longer than a few days.
Editing by Sandra Maler