(Adds Chinese Defence Ministry statement)
By Junko Fujita
TOKYO, Jan 2 (Reuters) - 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 multicoloured 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.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang described the man as a "balloon enthusiast", and confirmed he had been handed over to a Chinese vessel upon being rescued and was in good health. 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 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.
Japan-China tension spiked in late November when Beijing announced an air-defence zone covering a large swathe 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 United States refuses to recognise the zone and has sent military aircraft through it.
Abe's announcement last month of more muscular defences and security policies and his reversal of years of declines in military spending have also angered China.
China's "air-defence identification zone" may not, in fact, have been the bombshell it originally seemed.
Japan's Mainichi newspaper said on Wednesday senior Chinese navy officials briefed Japanese government officials on plans for an air-defence zone almost four years ago.
Secret minutes of an informal May 2010 meeting at a think-tank in Beijing show that senior Chinese officers discussed the planned zone with Japanese officials, suggesting the two countries work out rules to avoid a conflict in overlapping air zones, the newspaper said.
The report did not indicate whether the early plan included the most contentious element of China's recent announcement: that aircraft must identify themselves even if they are not headed for China's territorial airspace.
China's Defence Ministry, in statement faxed to Reuters, said that attendees at the think-tank meeting were military experts and did not represent any official position.
It said China informed Japan of the air zone plan shortly before it was formally announced on Nov. 23 last year.
Japanese Foreign Ministry officials could not immediately be reached. (Reporting by Junko Fujita; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by William Mallard and Robert Birsel)