Chinese balloonist lands in midst of isle dispute with Japan

Chinese balloonist lands in midst of isle dispute with Japan
A hot-air balloon drifting on the ocean is seen in the East China Sea near the disputed isles known as Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in this handout photo taken and released by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters-Japan Coast Guard January 2, 2014.

TOKYO- A Chinese man landed himself, literally, in the midst of a territorial dispute between Asia's two great powers, crash-landing a hot air balloon near contested islands held by Japan.

The Japanese coastguard said on Thursday it had rescued the balloonist, identified as 35-year-old-chef Xu Shuaijun, on Wednesday in the sea near the tiny isles, called the Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

The man's attempt to land his multicolored balloon on the rocky outcrops looks unlikely to have big repercussions for the two countries, as a coastguard spokesman said Japan handed him over to a Chinese patrol vessel on Wednesday evening and Japan's coastguard was operating as normal.

But Xu's adventure comes amid high tension over the disputed territory between the world's second- and third-biggest economies.

Both sides have been repeatedly scrambling fighter jets against perceived threats, raising fear that a miscalculation could lead to conflict, which in turn could draw in Japan's treaty ally, the United States.

On the day Xu, identified as a native of Hebei province, was fished out of the water 22 km (14 miles) south of Uotsuri island, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his commitment to a stronger military and to revising the pacifist constitution.

"Japan will play an even more proactive role than ever before for world peace and stability," Abe said in a New Year's message. "We will fully defend the lives and assets of our nationals as well as our territory, territorial waters and territorial airspace in a resolute manner."

Abe was sticking to his guns in the face of strong criticism from China and South Korea, and even a rare rebuke from the United States, over his visit a week ago to a shrine seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime aggression.

Rubbing salt into the wound, Japan's Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo on Wednesday also visited Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted by the allies as war criminals are among the millions of enshrined war dead.

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