Two giant pandas arrived in Malaysia from Chengdu today, marking the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and Malaysia.
The gesture of goodwill was made despite tensions over the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Representatives from both countries insisted bilateral relations remain friendly.
The pandas were initially due to arrive in Malaysia on April 16 but a member of staff from the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur said their arrival was delayed as a mark of respect for the passengers and grieving families aboard the missing aircraft.
The eight-year-old pandas, female Feng Yi (“Phoenix”) and male Fu Wa (“Lucky”), arrived in Kuala Lumpur to an honour guard of water cannon, after a flight from Chengdu in southwestern China where they were bred.
Feng Yi was briefly shown to the media before being whisked off to the national zoo with her prospective mate.
She initially retreated into her cage when exposed to daylight and the clatter of camera shutters, before gaining courage and curiously peering between the bars.
“May the arrival of these two precious icons of China contribute to building an everlasting friendship and sustainable cooperation” between Malaysia and China, environment minister Palanivel Govindasamy said at a welcoming ceremony.
According to Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang said the slight delay has not affected the 40th anniversary of bilateral ties.
He attended a welcoming ceremony for the pandas with Malaysia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister G. Palanivel.
“[The pandas] have arrived in the country before the 40th anniversary of Malaysia-China relationship,” Huang was quoted as saying.
China and Malaysia established diplomatic relations on May 31, 1974.
Palanivel said the two countries have enjoyed a strong diplomatic relationship for 40 years and it will continue to grow, according to Xinhua.
The two countries signed a 10-year panda loan agreement in 2012.
The pair were due to arrive on April 16 but Palanivel said at the time that before dispatching them, Beijing was awaiting further details on Flight MH370, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people including 153 Chinese on board.
The airline and Malaysia’s government have come under withering public criticism in China over the loss, and the failure to find the plane that was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The Boeing 777 jet is believed to have have veered far off course for reasons unknown, before crashing into the remote Indian Ocean, where efforts are under way to locate its flight data recorders on the seabed.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Chinese authorities allowed relatives to stage a rare public protest at Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing, suggesting official support for the criticism.
Malaysia’s image in China took a further blow in April, when a Chinese tourist was kidnapped in an eastern state by gunmen believed to be Islamic militants from the southern Philippines. Malaysia has said ransom negotiations are under way.
China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has been courting closer ties with Beijing, declaring this year as “China-Malaysia Friendship Year” to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
The pandas have already caused controversy in Malaysia over plans to house them in special US$7.7 million facility at the national zoo in Kuala Lumpur.
Environmentalists have said the money would have been better spent on conservation efforts for threatened Malaysian wildlife.
Palanivel said the panda pair would be given time to acclimatise before being shown to the public from the end of June.
With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse