Earlier this month direct flights and other communication links between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland resumed for the first time in almost six decades.

'Reunion'

Beijing first offered the pandas to Taiwan in 2005 hoping they would strengthen public support on the island for reuniting with the mainland.

When linked the names "Tuan Tuan'' and "Yuan Yuan'' mean "reunion'' in Chinese.

The offer of the two pandas was initially rejected by the Taiwan's then pro-indepedence president, Chen Shui-bian, but a repeated Chinese offer was accepted by Ma when he took office.

China and Taiwan separated in 1949 when Chinese Nationalist forces retreated to the island following the communist victory in the Chinese civil war.

Since then Beijing has regarded the island as a renegade province, and has warned it will use force if necessary if Taiwan declares itself formally independent.

Hundreds of Chinese missiles have been aimed at Taiwan from bases on the mainland, while Chinese troops regularly hold exercises to practice for an invasion of the island.

'Panda diplomacy'

China has often sent giant pandas to foreign zoos as a gesture of warming relations or to mark breakthroughs in ties in a practice that has been dubbed "panda diplomacy".

The panda is unique to China and serves as an unofficial national mascot.

But while many on Taiwan will appreciate the symbolic gesture, others say they want to see more visible signs that China is easing its threatening stance toward the island.

Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive
Party, told the Associated Press that Beijing's ultimate goal is to win Taiwanese political support, and that the pandas "will not cover up China's military threat against us".