Gerry Brownlee's secret China panda mission
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee is on a mission of "panda diplomacy" in China, making top-level advances to bring pandas to Wellington.
3 News has learned that Brownlee will today visit the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre and personally hand-deliver the Wellington City Council proposal.
So while Brownlee is in China on official defence business - he is doing panda business too.
Brownlee is in Chengdu for talks with military leaders and was presented with a wall hanging of a giant panda by General Li Zuocheng, by one of China's top military commanders.
Chengdu is the "Panda Capital" of China, and the breeding centre has loaned pandas to zoos in Atlanta, Tokyo, Edinburgh, San Diego, Toronto and Liverpool.
Brownlee's panda duties were not publicised as part of what is a significant visit to meet with the People's Liberation Army, although Brownlee's office were happy to admit to it when approached by 3 News.
So Brownlee's panda mission is effectively an "off-the-books" operation endorsed by John Key with the simple objective of getting pandas to Wellington.
Brownlee's involvement is significant because a minister of his seniority carries serious credibility in China. Further, it shows the Government is on board with the Council's proposal and determined to advance it.
A spokesman for Brownlee said the People's Liberation Army arranged the panda base visit before the recent round of publicity.
Brownlee's office then approached the Council and offered to take the proposal.
Brownlee's office issued the following statement:
"The primary purpose and vast majority of our visit is bilateral defence relations. Our hosts, the People's Liberation Army, booked us to visit the breeding facility while we are in Chengdu, as they are very proud of their pandas.
This was also the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and they are showing us how they've rebuilt. The visit to the panda breeding facility was arranged by our hosts well before the recent publicity about Wellington City Council's proposal. However, as we're here we offered to hand over a document detailing the council proposal."