A landowner agreed to sell three of the disputed Senkaku Islands to the Japanese government, a development largely accepted by Tokyo’s nationalist governor, who sparked the latest uproar with China, sources said.
The Noda administration will pay 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) for the islands, they said.
Cabinet ministers are expected to soon confirm the government’s policy of nationalizing the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
A Cabinet meeting held as early as mid-September will approve the use of reserves from this fiscal year’s budget for the purchase.
Sources said Hiroyuki Nagahama, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, met secretly with a representative of the landowner who lives in Saitama on Sept. 3, and the two sides agreed that the central government will buy the islands of Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima.
The government plans to sign a formal contract with the landowner at an early date.
Makoto Watanabe, the lawyer representing the landowner, declined to provide details of the negotiations.
“I have no comment, including whether we reached an agreement with the central government,” he said.
China, which has expressed opposition to the Japanese government’s plan, is expected to step up its criticism with the latest development.
But sources in the Noda administration have said one purpose of the government’s plan was to prevent friction from heightening with Beijing and Taipei.
Central government officials feared that diplomatic ties would unravel if Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara carried out the metropolitan government’s plan to buy the islands from the Saitama landowner.
Ishihara, who has repeatedly infuriated China with his comments about World War II and other issues, told reporters on Sept. 5 that he will accept the purchase by the central government.
“It’s OK if the central government buys (the islands), but the Tokyo metropolitan government had intended to eventually hand them over to the central government after purchasing them,” Ishihara said. “If the owner and the central government reached an agreement, we cannot butt in.”
But the combative governor still criticized the government, specifically Noda’s rejection of his demand made on Aug. 19 for the central government to build a port facility for fishing boats on the islands.
“Akihisa Nagashima, an adviser to the prime minister, visited me yesterday and asked for my understanding for the central government’s inaction,” Ishihara said. “I don’t understand why it won’t build one. I suspect it won’t in consideration for China.”
During a speech in Washington in April, Ishihara announced that the Tokyo metropolitan government would buy the Senkaku Islands, saying Japan has failed to protect its interests amid increased Chinese maritime activities in the East China Sea.
Noda on July 7 announced that the central government would buy the isles, which are believed to lie near oil reserves.
The central government initially estimated the value of the three islands at around 500 million yen, according to a source close to Noda. But the Tokyo metropolitan government collected more than 1.4 billion yen in contributions from the public for its bid, forcing the central government to counter with an offer of about 2 billion yen.
“We will immediately present the donations to the central government (to buy the islands),” Ishihara said on Sept. 5.
After Noda announced the government’s purchase plan, Hong Kong activists landed on Uotsurishima in August. They were detained and later deported by Japan.
The event triggered anti-Japan protests that spread across China.
The Tokyo metropolitan government further upset China on Sept. 2 by conducting a seaborne survey of the islands. Ishihara said he intended to join another survey in October and land on the islands even without the central government’s permission.
Although the central government has insisted its purchase plan would help to maintain Japan-China relations, a political motive may also have been involved.
The Noda administration’s support ratings plummeted after he pushed through legislation to double the consumption tax rate to 10 percent by 2015 and gave the go-ahead to restart two reactors in the summer despite widespread opposition from the public in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Noda appears set to tap into the rising nationalist sentiment in Japan, which is also engaged in an isles dispute with South Korea.
Government sources said the prime minister is considering making his handling of territorial issues—including national ownership of the Senkakus—a key plank in his campaign for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election scheduled for Sept. 21.
Noda is expected to have the nationalization plan approved at a Cabinet meeting before the DPJ presidential election.
But there are potential pitfalls to such a strategy. An angry reaction from China could hurt the interests of Japanese companies dependent on the country for raw materials, manufacturing bases and sales.
In addition, Ishihara could try to embarrass the Noda government by saying the prime minister’s failure to build a port facility on the islands shows he is unwilling to stand up to China.
Sources close to Noda said the government wants to explain its decision to China at a possible summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in late September.
The Japanese and Chinese leaders could meet earlier on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok scheduled for Sept. 8-9.
Sources said the Japanese side hopes the leaders will avoid direct discussions about the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands and simply confirm the importance of bilateral relations, taking into consideration the anti-Japan protests in China and the snatching of the Japanese flag from the limousine of the Japanese ambassador to China.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, however, could bring up the islands issue in Vladivostok.
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