"China can position itself as a generous friend, who's willing to send some of the rarest mammals on the planet to certain zoos," explains Falk Hartig, a postdoctoral researcher of Chinese diplomacy at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.
"What's helpful here is the fact the giant panda only lives in China, which makes it a unique public diplomacy tool."
But he points out soft power is difficult to quantify - making it as fuzzy as the bears.
"If we understand soft power as winning hearts and minds, I'd say the panda might help to win hearts abroad but maybe not necessarily minds."
Many "China threat" theorists defer to the dragon rather than the panda as China's totem. But this demonstrates misunderstanding, other scholars say, since Chinese dragons aren't menacing firedrakes but rather are water-dwelling dispensers of good fortune.
There's even a current within Chinese academia to replace the word "dragon" with the Chinese word long in English to distinguish the fabled beasts' Eastern and Western cultural taxonomies.
"In the West, the dragon is more associated with aggressiveness, hawkishness and the like," says Hartig, whose study Panda Diplomacy: The Cutest Part of China's Public Diplomacy was recently published in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy.
"The panda, on the other hand, is a symbol of peacefulness, which fits much more with China's official foreign policy goals of building a harmonious world."
This charm extends beyond government realms to ordinary people.
Michele Vaught from the US believes both creatures are associated with China, but the panda is more appropriate - to tattoo on her skin. That's why the 28-year-old got the Chinese characters for "panda" inscribed on her midsection when she visited the country in 2005.
"I don't even know where this dragon nation usage originates from. But it's used constantly in academic thesis statements," she says.
"However, there are no real dragons. You can't go to a zoo or see a National Geographic photo of a dragon. And it's not quite the universally recognized symbol across all age groups like the panda."
Vaught points out that even schoolchildren know the panda's native land.
She says her permanent ink seemed like her visit's perfect tribute.
"I thought: 'I love pandas. I'm in the land of pandas. And I can get a real Chinese tattoo in China'."
So she did.
"Besides that they're adorable, huge, fuzzy and ridiculous, they also remind me of hope, that even when things are looking bad, they can turn around. Maybe it appeals to the whole idea that humans are destroying the planet and killing off its diversity. But, hey, look, we're saving the pandas."
She also visited the Beijing Zoo's pandas.
The mostly Chinese crowds at the capital's panda pens show the animals aren't solely a boon to China's international image but are also domestically venerated.
Liaoning province resident Sun Lihong explains she and her 17-year-old daughter Bao Zhiyue partly decided to spend their vacation in late February in Beijing to see the capital's pandas.
"We came to see our national treasure," the 44-year-old says.
Bao agrees pandas represent China better than dragons.
"Dragons aren't real," she says.
"And foreigners and Chinese think of them differently. But everyone sees the panda as the same. They truly represent China and our hopes of peace and harmony."
Nearby, a 2-year-old American clutching a stuffed panda hugs a Chinese toddler carrying a panda-shaped bag. The crowd pulls away from the creatures they came to see to photograph the cute children.
"Look," the Chinese parents say to their daughter, pointing to the foreign girl's stuffed animal, smiling, "she's got a panda, too."
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.