TOKYO – Japan's Cabinet formally announced Tuesday that the government will purchase several disputed islands that China also claims — a move that Beijing said would bring "serious consequences."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters that Japan will buy the three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea from a private Japanese family it recognizes as the owner, and has budgeted 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) for the purchase.
China and Taiwan also claim the islands, which are part of what Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyu group.
Fujimura said the decision to nationalize the islands is "to maintain the Senkakus peacefully and stably."
The deal was signed with the family later Tuesday morning, public broadcaster NHK said.
The dispute has long been a flashpoint in Japan-China relations, and has been heating up in recent months.
Fujimura repeated that the islands are part of Japan's territory and should not cause any friction with other countries or regions.
"We certainly do not wish the issue to affect our diplomatic relations with China and it is important to avoid any misunderstanding or an unexpected event," he said.
Tuesday's formal Cabinet approval came after Fujimura announced the decision a day earlier — prompting a swift response from China's Foreign Ministry, which said Beijing would not "sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated."
"China strongly urges Japan to immediately stop all action to undermine China's territorial sovereignty and return to a negotiated settlement to the dispute. If Japan insists on going its own way, it will bear all the serious consequences that follow," the ministry said in a statement.
It did not specify the possible consequences.
State-run China Central Television reported that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned the Japanese ambassador to protest the purchase.
All the major state newspapers in China ran the ministry statement on their front pages Tuesday, along with comments from Premier Wen Jiabao.
"The Diaoyu Islands are an inalienable part of China's territory, and the Chinese government and its people will absolutely make no concession on issues concerning its sovereignty and territorial integrity," Wen said at an inauguration ceremony for a statue of late Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
Japanese supporters think having the government own the islands will strengthen Japan's claim and control over them and send a tougher message to China.
Experts in Japan said the government's move also was meant to block a plan by Tokyo's nationalistic governor to buy the islands and develop them — a move that would have inflamed ties with China even more. The islands would not be developed under the deal being approved Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the city of Tokyo sent a team of experts to waters around the islands to survey fishing grounds and possible sites for development, a move that was strongly criticized by China. Activists from Japan and Hong Kong briefly set foot on the islands last month, and hundreds of Chinese have held street protests in various cities in recent weeks.
The dispute over the islands boiled over into a major diplomatic tiff between the two neighbors after a Sept. 7, 2010, incident in which a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard ships near the islands. The fishing boat captain was arrested and later released.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.