TOKYO - Risking a head-on clash with Beijing, Japan has decided to nationalise the Senkaku islands, which China claims and calls Diaoyu Islands.
The move drew swift condemnation from China, with Premier Wen Jiabao saying that his country will "never yield an inch" on the row.
"The Diaoyu Islands are an inalienable part of China's territory, and the Chinese government and its people will absolutely make no concession on issues concerning its sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said yesterday, hours after Tokyo announced the move.
China's top legislator Wu Bangguo said yesterday that Japan's decision to "buy" the Diaoyu Islands is illegal and invalid. Beijing also summoned Japan's ambassador to China to express its "strong protest".
In a hard-hitting commentary, Xinhua News Agency said the move was no less than pouring oil on fire as a recent string of Japanese provocations over the islands have already undermined the hard-won strategic partnership between the two countries.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing is watching the situation carefully and will take necessary measures to protect its sovereignty.
But the Japanese side stresses that the planned purchase of the disputed islands should not affect Japan-China ties.
"It is a transfer of ownership of land from an individual to the state. It does not provoke any problems in other countries or territories," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura yesterday.
Analysts say the latest development could further chill Japan-China ties, which were badly affected last month when pro-Beijing activists went ashore one of the islands. Shortly after they were arrested and deported, a dozen Japanese nationalists visited the same island and raised the Japanese flag, sparking protests in many Chinese cities.
Besides China, Taiwan also claims the islands and calls them Diaoyutai. Taiwanese authorities yesterday released a statement urging self-restraint by Japan. The statement said that nationalisation of the isles would hurt cooperation between Japan and Taiwan and also heighten tensions in East Asia.
Japan's Cabinet is expected to officially endorse the decision today and a contract with the islands' owners is likely to be signed the same day.
The government plans to set aside 20.5 billion yen (S$323 million) from its current year's budget to buy three of the five main islands in the Senkaku group. It already owns one of the islands.
According to Mr Fujimura, lighthouses and facilities to shelter fishing boats in an emergency are expected to be constructed on the islands. The protection of the islands will be left to the nation's Coast Guard, which will be beefed up for the purpose.
Both China and Taiwan began pressing claims to the Senkaku isles in the 1970s when studies indicated the likely existence of rich gas reserves in the area. Japan has had effective administrative control of the isles since 1895.