January 2, 2014 8:10 am

China balloonist deflated after missing his mark in islands spat

This handout picture taken by the Japan Coast Guard on January 1 2014 shows a hot air balloon which was carrying a Chinese man as it lands on the water, south of the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea. The Chinese man was rescued by the Japan Coast Guard after a failed attempt to land a hot-air balloon on islands at the centre of a bitter dispute between Tokyo and Beijing, a Japanese official said on January 2 2014©AFP

Japan’s coast guard plucked a stranded Chinese balloonist out of the sea near the disputed Senkaku island group on New Year’s day after the man tried and failed to land on one of the islands.

The man’s political affiliation and precise motive were unclear, but the coast guard said on Thursday that he told his rescuers he had been trying to reach one of the Japanese-administered islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in China. He was identified as Xu Shuaijun, a 35-year-old cook from Hebei province.

Chinese activists have previously landed or attempted to land ships on the uninhabited islands, which are at the centre of a bitter territorial dispute. The confrontation has been especially fraught since late 2012, with Chinese patrol ships regularly entering waters near the islands and both sides scrambling fighter jets, though so far there has been no violence.

The balloon incident appeared, if anything, to mark a moment of co-operation between adversaries in the dispute. Aviation authorities in Taiwan, which also claims the islands, first alerted the Japanese coast guard that a hot-air balloon they had been tracking by radar had gone missing over the East China Sea.

A coast guard helicopter soon spotted the rainbow-coloured balloon in the water about 20km from one of the islands, and a ship was dispatched to pick up Mr Xu, who was not seriously injured. After ascertaining Mr Xu’s nationality, the coast guard handed him over to a nearby Chinese ship.

According to Japanese media reports, the Chinese captain expressed gratitude to the coast guard for rescuing a Chinese citizen.

Although military forces have not clashed directly in the territorial dispute, past incidents involving private citizens have helped to inflame it. China reacted angrily when Japan arrested a fishing boat captain in 2010 after his ship struck a Japanese coast guard patrol boat near the islands, and last year a group of Hong Kong-based Chinese nationalists succeeded in landing on one of the islands, igniting another diplomatic incident.

Japanese nationalists have also pointedly sailed ships near the islands, on which they are forbidden to land by Japanese authorities.

A week before the balloon incident, relations between Japan and China sank to a further low when Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni war shrine, a site reviled by many in China and Korea as a symbol of Japanese imperialism. The act broke an informal seven-year freeze on visits to Yasukuni by Japanese premiers.

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