The Japanese Coast Guard has rescued a Chinese man who crashed while trying to land a hot-air balloon on islands at the center of a territorial dispute between China and Japan.
The Coast Guard said Thursday it found Xu Shuaijun about 20 kilometers south of the East China Sea islands. It said he was unhurt and was transferred to a Chinese patrol ship.
The 35-year-old departed China's Fujian province on Wednesday, but officials say he sent a rescue request just hours later, apparently after running into turbulence.
China's Foreign Ministry later confirmed the incident, but a spokesman, Qin Gang, stressed that the man was only a "balloon enthusiast" and not affiliated with the government.
Matthew Linley, a political science professor at Temple University in Japan, says since the early 1990s, various nationalists have attempted to reach the islands to make a political statement.
"No one in a balloon that I'm aware of, but a number of Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong nationalists have tried to land on the Senkaku islands. But none of them are government-sanctioned. They tend to be private individuals that want to basically try to assert their countries' national pride by landing on these islands," he said.
The uninhabited islands, known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu, have plagued China-Japan relations for decades, but the dispute has grown considerably worse in recent years.
In November, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the area, requiring all foreign aircraft to identify themselves and submit to Chinese demands.
Japan, as well as the United States and South Korea, have rejected the zone, flying military aircraft there in defiance of the Chinese requests. They view the zone as the latest attempt by China to change the status quo in the region.
China says its move was defensive in nature, saying tensions surrounding the islands have only risen because Japan recently purchased some of the islands from their Japanese landowners.
China-Japan ties were further strained by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip last month to a Tokyo war shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including some war criminals.
Some Asian countries that were victims of Japan's imperial aggression view official Japanese visits to the shrine as insensitive and an indication Tokyo has not properly dealt with its past.