Japan said to be ready to buy islands in dispute with China

Martin Fackler / New York Times News Service /

KYOTO, Japan — The Japanese government has struck a tentative agreement to buy three uninhabited islands that are part of a chain at the center of a heated territorial dispute with China, a person close to the talks said Thursday.

A government negotiator got a verbal agreement from the islands’ owners, a family living in suburban Tokyo, according to the person knowledgeable about the talks, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations were still in a sensitive stage. He said the particulars of the deal, including a price, had yet to be decided, and that the deal could still fall through.

A deal would allow the government to nationalize three of the five major islands in the East China Sea chain, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. It would not directly affect the more crucial issue of sovereignty over the islands, which are already administered by Japan but claimed by China and also Taiwan.

While the dispute has been simmering for decades, emotions flared in April after Tokyo’s outspoken rightist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, proposed that his city buy the islands. That started a series of landings last month on the islands by nationalists, first from China and then Japan; the Japanese landing contributed to anti-Japanese protests in China.

Ishihara’s proposal was apparently an effort to criticize Japan’s governing Democratic Party, which had sought closer ties with Beijing, for failing to take stronger action to defend against China’s increasingly assertive claims to the islands. Ishihara had said he wanted to bolster Japan’s control of the islands by erecting structures, like a communications station, on them.

That prompted the national government to make a counteroffer to buy the islands, something that Japanese officials have cast as an effort to reduce tensions.

Still, China responded critically Wednesday to earlier reports of a purchase deal. In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, called the sale “illegal and invalid,” according to The Associated Press.

Major Japanese news media outlets had reported Wednesday that a formal agreement had been struck to sell the islands for 2.05 billion yen, or about $26 million. However, a spokesman for the islands’ owners, the Kurihara family, said that no formal agreement had been reached.

The national government already owns one of the islands, and the fifth remains in private hands. While the islands themselves are little more than barren rocks, scientists say the seafloor around them could hold rich petroleum deposits.