TOKYO — Tokyo's outspoken governor says the city has decided to buy a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea to bolster Japanese claims to the territory, a move that could elevate tensions with China.
Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said the city is close to reaching an agreement with the private Japanese owner of three of the four islands in the group known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The islands, surrounded by rich fishing grounds, are also claimed by China and Taiwan. They have been a frequent flash point in diplomatic relations between Japan and China.
A collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels in 2010 near the islands set off a serious diplomatic spat, with Beijing temporarily freezing trade and ministerial talks.
"Tokyo has decided to buy the Senkaku islands. Tokyo will protect the Senkakus," Ishihara said in a speech Monday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "The Japanese are acquiring the islands to protect our own territory. Would anyone have a problem with that?"
Ishihara, a strong nationalist, said the idea is to block China from taking the islands from Japanese control, as the central government is reluctant to upset China.
He did not indicate how much the city would pay, but said the deal would be finalized while he is visiting the United States.
In Beijing, Liu Weimin, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reacted harshly to Ishihara's comment and reiterated China's claim over the islands.
"Any unilateral measure taken by Japan is illegal and invalid, and will not change the fact that those islands belong to China," he said in a statement.
Tokyo city official Tatsuo Fujii said details of the deal could not be released immediately and further discussions would be held with Okinawa prefecture, which has jurisdiction over the islands, and other related authorities.
The government currently pays rent to the owners of the four islands in the Senkaku group so they won't be sold to any questionable buyer. It pays 24.5 million yen ($304,000) a year to the owner of the three islands, which are unused. The fourth island is used by the U.S. military for drills.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura reiterated on Tuesday that Japan has sovereignty over the Senkaku islands and said the central government might purchase them.
Japan and China also have disputes over undersea gas deposits in the East China Sea and Japan's wartime history.
Ishihara previously helped to erect a lighthouse on one of the Senkaku islands, which a group of nationalists later replaced with a larger one recorded on navigation charts.
Ishihara's comments about the disputed islands are also seen as politically motivated to discredit Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government, which is struggling to gain public support.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.