TOKYO – The Japanese government has agreed to buy several privately owned islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, media reports said Wednesday.
The government has agreed to buy three of the five main islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from the Kurihara family for 2.05 billion yen ($26 million), Kyodo News agency and the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers reported, citing anonymous sources.
A Japanese government official declined to confirm the deal and said negotiations were continuing.
Tensions over the islands have flared since April, when Tokyo's nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, announced a plan for the city government to raise money to buy the islands so that they would not be vulnerable to purchase by a third party such as China.
Last weekend, Tokyo sent a team of experts to waters around the islands to survey fishing grounds and possible sites for development — although the central government forbade the expedition from setting foot on the islands.
China responded by calling the reported purchase "illegal and invalid."
"For them to nationalize the Diaoyu islands seriously violates China's sovereignty and hurts the Chinese people's feelings," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular press briefing.
"I stress again that any of their unilateral acts with the Diaoyu islands are illegal and invalid. China's determination will not change in terms of safeguarding its territory. China is observing the situation and will take necessary measures to defend its sovereignty," Hong said.
While the move would clearly anger China, media reports said that the purchase is intended more as a means of squelching Ishihara's more inflammatory proposal, which includes development plans. The islands are near key sea lanes and surrounded by rich fishing grounds and untapped natural resources.
No development would take place under the national plan, the reports said.
The media reports said funding for the purchase would require Cabinet approval, something likely to happen in the next week or two. They said the final deal could be closed by the end of the month.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government and owner are still talking and he would not comment on details about the discussion.
"We are negotiating with the owner while we try to grasp where the situation stands between (the central government) and the Tokyo metropolitan government," Fujimura said. He said the government would make an announcement "when we reach a result after completing the process."
Phone calls to a member of the Kurihara family and business went unanswered.
Responding to reporters' questions Wednesday, Ishihara said he had spoken to the owners of the islands and claimed they told him that no final deal had been made yet. City officials said there has been no change in Tokyo's plans to try to buy them, or for Ishihara to visit the area himself sometime next month. They said, however, that the government was dealing directly with Ishihara, and said they did not know the context of those talks.
Government representatives met with Kurihara family members on Monday and agreed on the basic terms of the sale, the reports said.
The dispute over the islands grabbed headlines after a Sept. 7, 2010, incident in which a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard ships near the islands. The Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested and then released.
The dispute had been on the back burner as Japan struggled to recover from last March's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.
Associated Press Writers Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and contributed to this report.