WASHINGTON - The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is in negotiations with the owners of the disputed Senkaku Islands with the aim of buying them by the end of this year, Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said.
Speaking at a think tank forum while visiting Washington, Ishihara said Monday local time that the purchase is aimed at protecting Japanese territory, an apparent reference to China’s claim to the islands. Situated in the East China Sea, they are under the administrative control of Japan.
The sudden announcement by the outspoken and hawkish governor will inevitably draw criticism from China, which has been trying to expand its influence in the area near the disputed islands, and trigger further friction between the two nations.
“Tokyo will protect the Senkaku Islands. No matter which country dislikes it, no one should have a problem” with Japan obtaining the islands to protect its territory, Ishihara told the audience, suggesting criticism of the central government for its handling of the territorial issue.
At a news conference after the speech, Ishihara said the metropolitan government plans to buy all of the privately owned islets, which are uninhabited. A basic agreement with the Japanese owners has been reached and proxies from the two sides are now negotiating, he said.
Ishihara declined to reveal the planned purchase price.
There is rich fishing in the area, as well as undersea resources, the governor said, adding, “If we leave them as they are, we don’t know what will happen to the islands.”
He also indicated the metropolitan government will enter into talks with the Okinawa Prefectural Government and the city of Ishigaki, which lies within the prefecture, to discuss how to manage the islets after any purchase is completed.
In Okinawa Prefecture on Tuesday, Ishigaki Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama told reporters that he welcomes Ishihara’s plan, adding that “joint ownership with our city is desirable.”
However, the sudden proposal by Ishihara baffled other officials in Okinawa Prefecture and Ishigaki, with one saying it was “a bolt out of the blue.”
Although the municipal government in Ishigaki has administrative jurisdiction over the islands, the central government has leased part of the land from the owners and prohibits people from landing on them.
Collisions near the islands in September 2010 between Japan Coast Guard patrol boats and a Chinese fishing vessel caused bilateral ties to plummet to their lowest point in years.
Complicating the issue further, the islands are also claimed by Taiwan.