Chinese balloonist triggers secret China-Japan talks

A Chinese balloonist who launched himself toward Japan’s Senkaku Islands earlier this month became a pawn in secret talks between China and Japan over how to deal with him.

The New Year’s Day incident found the balloonist, a cook from Hebei Province in China, going off course as he tried to make a political statement supporting China’s claim on the Senkaku Islands, briefly becoming a missing person and attracting attention from Taiwan, which alerted Japanese officials.

Unknown until only days ago, was the secret behind-the-scenes calls between Chinese officials and Japan who asked that the balloonist not be prosecuted for his venture into Japanese territorial waters.  Beijing used a number of diplomatic channels to appeal for the man’s release, wanting to avoid a repeat of a 2010 flare up between the two countries over a Chinese vessel in the same Senkaku waters.

The Chinese trawler had first entered Japanese waters, and when challenged by the Japan Coast Guard, crashed into two Japan Coast Guard cutters.  The Coast Guard arrested the ship’s captain on charges of intentionally ramming the two Japanese patrol boats.  Chinese officials appealed, and Japan ultimately gave in over concerns about bilateral relations, and released the ship captain.

The balloonist was released in international waters. Beijing, which had expressed its gratitude for the Japan Coast Guard rescuing the man, had avoided stirring the political situation during the incident. It did not send aircraft or ships into the area during the time the Japan Coast Guard was rescuing the balloonist.