The government on Tuesday moved forward to nationalize three of the five islets that compose the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. It signed a ¥2.05 billion contract with the owner of the three islets — Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima — and decided to use ¥2.05 billion out of the fiscal 2012 budget’s reserve fund.

The government’s announcement of the signing was ill-timed because it came just after Chinese President Hu Jintao warned during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok that the Japanese government’s plan to purchase the three islets was “unlawful and null and void.” Mr. Hu was standing when he made the remarks in a conversation with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Given the difficult situation with the Senkaku issue, Mr. Hu apparently chose not to sit with Mr. Noda during the talks.

China will surely step up its protest against the purchase of the islets. Japan should therefore make the utmost effort to communicate and fully explain to Beijing why it decided to purchase the islets. China, for its part, should refrain from taking retaliatory action. This would only worsen the situation and harm mutual benefits.

The government’s decision to purchase the islets was prompted by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase the same islets. The decision seems reasonable in view of the fact that Mr. Ishihara takes a hawkish attitude toward China and has expressed a desire to land on the Senkakus.

Government ownership of the three islets should better contribute to preventing discord with China than would the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s ownership, and will be more beneficial for bilateral relations.

China should appreciate the fact that the Japanese government turned down a proposal by Mr. Ishihara and the Ishigaki city government in Okinawa Prefecture that it construct a jetty for fishing boats and a radio relay station in the Senkakus.

The Japanese government also plans to continue using the unmanned lighthouse there. It must be said that Japan has done what it can to avoid provoking China.

Despite Japan’s rather restrained approach to the Senkaku issue, China has reacted strongly. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said that the Senkakus are “an inherent part of China’s territory” and that “China will never budge even half an inch over the sovereignty and territorial issue.” Two Chinese surveillance and patrol ships recently arrived at the area.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry blasted the nationalization of the three islets as “totally illegal and invalid” and “a gross violation of China’s sovereignty over its own territory” and said that if Japan’s unilateral action causes “serious consequences,” Japan should take full responsibility.

In this heated situation, it is more important than ever that both sides keep cool heads. The two countries should remember that the Senkaku issue must be solved politically and diplomatically.

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