Chinese man's big splash in isle row

Bid to land hot air balloon on land claimed by China and Japan flops

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

The man, identified as Xu Shuaijun, 35, was fished out of the sea 22km south of Uotsuri island on New Year's Day.

Japan's coast guards yesterday said they rescued the balloon enthusiast before handing him over to a Chinese patrol ship outside Japan's territorial waters. But Beijing declined to acknowledge any Japanese role in his rescue.

"The (Chinese) coast guard vessel came to the waters where the accident took place to help the balloonist," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang at a regular briefing.

Mr Xu, who was unhurt, took to the Twitter-like Sina Weibo yesterday to thank the public for their concerns. He had returned to the city of Fuqing in Fujian province, where he launched his adventure on Wednesday.

The Hebei native, who in 2012 became the first man to pilot a hot air balloon over north-east China's Bohai Bay, had wanted to fly 359km and land on one of the tiny isles in the East China Sea, which are hotly contested by Beijing and Tokyo.

The Chinese call the specks of rocky outcrops Diaoyu while the Japanese call them Senkaku. Chinese ships and aircraft have approached the isles dozens of times to assert Beijing's territorial claims since Japan nationalised some of them in September 2012.

Previous attempts by activists from both sides to land on the isles were largely blocked. But in 2012, about a dozen members of a right-wing Japanese group swam ashore from a 20-boat flotilla. Fourteen pro-China activists also managed to sail to the islands from Hong Kong on a similar trip.

While Mr Xu fell short of his target, he had won praise from some netizens, who declared him a "hero" and his adventure an "awesome" deed.

One Weibo user wrote: "What innovative thinking and action!"

"Brother Xu, your countrymen are proud of your pioneering act," wrote another.

Mr Xu had last September excitedly shared his planned voyage in two postings. In one, he posted a photo of a red Chinese flag with islands in the background.

"I got some expert advice today, and am now full of meteorological knowledge! I'm flying to the Diaoyu Islands! Be Chinese with attitude."

In another, he posted what appeared to be a map of his planned route, with a bright yellow line drawn between the Fujian coast and the disputed isles.

His crash came amid heightened tension over the disputed territory between the world's second- and third-biggest economies. Tensions rose last November when China abruptly declared a new Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea, including the disputed isles.

Bilateral ties were further strained last week when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours high- level leaders executed for war crimes after World War II. The visit prompted strong criticisms from China and South Korea, and even a rare rebuke from Japan's treaty ally, the United States.

Undeterred, Mr Abe reiterated his commitment to a stronger military in his New Year's message, while Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo on Wednesday also visited the shrine.

Beijing, which also claims most of South China Sea, late last year deployed its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, for testing and training amid mounting regional tensions. The vessel returned to its home port of Qingdao after a 37-day mission on Wednesday.

But fears of a miscalculation, which could lead to China-Japan armed conflict, remain.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS