TOKYO — Japan's Cabinet formally announced Tuesday that the government will purchase several disputed islands that China also claims – a move that Beijing said would bring "serious consequences."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters that Japan will buy the three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea from a private Japanese family it recognizes as the owner, and has budgeted 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) for the purchase.
China and Taiwan also claim the islands, which are part of what Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyu group.
Fujimura said the decision to nationalize the islands is "to maintain the Senkakus peacefully and stably."
The deal was signed with the family later Tuesday morning, public broadcaster NHK said.
The dispute has long been a flashpoint in Japan-China relations, and has been heating up in recent months.
Fujimura repeated that the islands are part of Japan's territory and should not cause any friction with other countries or regions.
"We certainly do not wish the issue to affect our diplomatic relations with China and it is important to avoid any misunderstanding or an unexpected event," he said.
Tuesday's formal Cabinet approval came after Fujimura announced the decision a day earlier – prompting a swift response from China's Foreign Ministry, which said Beijing would not "sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated."
"China strongly urges Japan to immediately stop all action to undermine China's territorial sovereignty and return to a negotiated settlement to the dispute. If Japan insists on going its own way, it will bear all the serious consequences that follow," the ministry said in a statement.
It did not specify the possible consequences.
State-run China Central Television reported that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned the Japanese ambassador to protest the purchase.
All the major state newspapers in China ran the ministry statement on their front pages Tuesday, along with comments from Premier Wen Jiabao.
"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," Wen said at an inauguration ceremony for a statue of late Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
Japanese supporters think having the government own the islands will strengthen Japan's claim and control over them and send a tougher message to China.
Experts in Japan said the government's move also was meant to block a plan by Tokyo's nationalistic governor to buy the islands and develop them – a move that would have inflamed ties with China even more. The islands would not be developed under the deal being approved Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the city of Tokyo sent a team of experts to waters around the islands to survey fishing grounds and possible sites for development, a move that was strongly criticized by China. Activists from Japan and Hong Kong briefly set foot on the islands last month, and hundreds of Chinese have held street protests in various cities in recent weeks.
The dispute over the islands boiled over into a major diplomatic tiff between the two neighbors after a Sept. 7, 2010, incident in which a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard ships near the islands. The fishing boat captain was arrested and later released.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.
Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands
Located in the East China Sea near Taiwan and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, these remote uninhabited isles have been under Japanese control since 1895. They are seen as important because of their strategic location, and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and may be near underwater resources such as natural gas. China claims it discovered them in the 14th century. Claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. <br><em>An anti-Japan protester shouts slogans near a Chinese national flag outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, China, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)</em>
Dokdo, or Takeshima
Administered by South Korea since the 1950s, these outcroppings in the Sea of Japan, called the East Sea in Korea, are inhabited only by a contingent of South Korean police. Claimed by South Korea and Japan. <br><em>South Korean protesters shout slogans during a rally against Japan's sovereignty claims over the islet of Dokdo in South Korea, which is known as Takeshima in Japan, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)</em>
Located off the Russian Far East and Japan's northernmost main island, the southern Kurils were occupied by the Soviets in the closing days of World War II, and Japan before that. Four of the Russian-controlled islands, which have small military and civilian populations, are in dispute and have kept Japan and Russia from signing a formal treaty ending their wartime hostilities. They are a base for fishing operations and a rich source of crab. Claimed by Russia and Japan. <br><em>Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in front of a map of islands, known as Northern Territories in Japan and Kuril islands on February 7, 2007, in Tokyo, Japan. Held in Russia, the meeting demanded the return of the islands. (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)</em>
A flashpoint in the South China Sea, they are comprised of hundreds of coral reefs, islets and atolls claimed entirely or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. <br><em>This July 20, 2011, file photo shows an aerial view of the Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. (AP Photo/Rolex Dela Pena, Pool, File)</em>
About halfway between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, they are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. They are called Xisha in Chinese and Hoang Sa in Vietnamese. China and Vietnam had a conflict over them in the 1970s, and China has controlled them since then. <br><em>This July 27, 2012, photo shows an aerial view of Sansha, a city on the disputed Paracel islands, which is now considered by China as a part of the Hainan province. (STR/AFP/GettyImages)</em>