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Japan says it will soon buy disputed islands claimed by China

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times –

BEIJING — Japan’s government said Monday it would buy three uninhabited islands southwest of Okinawa from the Japanese landowners, ratcheting up a territorial dispute with China.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo following a ministerial meeting that Japan’s government had made a deal with the Japanese landowners on Friday and that the sale would be completed “as quickly as possible.”

Fujimura did not specify a price for the islands, but various media reports have put the sales price around $26 million. Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands, which calls Senkaku and which China calls Daioyu.

There was no immediate response from Chinese officials, but Chinese President Hu Jintao met briefly with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, Russia. Hu told Noda that “any action by Japan to ‘buy’ the Diaoyu Islands is illegal and invalid and China is firmly against it,” the official China Daily reported on Monday.

Domestic politics on both sides seem to be inflaming the dispute over the islands. The purchase plan has been pursued by conservative Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a strident nationalist, putting the more liberal Noda into a difficult position. Although the initial plan called for the islands to be sold to Tokyo’s metropolitan government, the plan now is to have the property be owned by Japan’s Coast Guard.

The islands are owned by the Kurihara family. Hiroyuki Kurihara, a company executive in his 60s from Saitama prefecture northwest of Tokyo, said in July that his family bought the islands between 1972 and 1988.

Noda was not present at Monday’s meeting on the sale, Japan’s Kyodo News reported. Instead, the meeting was attended by Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, Finance Minister Azumi Jun and Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Yuichiro Hata.

The territorial dispute is coming at a sensitive time for Hu as the Chinese government prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, with Hu expected to turn over the presidency to Vice President Xi Jinping sometime in October.

Any escalation of the dispute could inflame nationalistic sentiment in China, something Beijing strains to control. Last month, thousands joined anti-Japan protests across China, smashing Japanese cars and restaurants.

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