A Chinese man landed himself in the midst of a territorial dispute between Asia's two great powers when his hot air balloon crash-landed near islands whose ownership is contested by China and Japan.
The Japanese Coast Guard said Thursday it had rescued the balloonist, identified as 35-year-old-chef Xu Shuaijun, in the sea near the tiny islands, called the Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
The man's attempt to land his multi-colored balloon on the rocky outcrops looks unlikely to have big repercussions for the two countries. A coast guard spokesman said Japan handed him over to a Chinese patrol vessel on Wednesday evening and Japan's Coast Guard was operating as normal.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang described the man as a "balloon enthusiast" and confirmed he was in good health and had been handed over to a Chinese vessel upon being rescued. He declined further comment.
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 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."
Tension spiked in late November when Beijing announced an air-defense zone covering a large area of the East China Sea, including the disputed isles, demanding that all aircraft flying through the zone identify themselves to Chinese authorities and keep communications open.
Japan has urged China to rescind the decision, and its military and civilian aircraft have defied the requirements, flying through the zone without notifying China. The U.S. refuses to recognize the zone and has sent military aircraft through it.