TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo's controversial governor wants to use public funds to buy islands disputed between Japan and China, prompting Beijing to denounce the plan as illegal and reassert its sovereignty.
The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have long been the centre of maritime territorial disputes between China and neighbors, all citing historical and other claims over fishing areas and potentially rich gas deposits.
Shintaro Ishihara, 79, announced the idea of buying the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea from private owners during his visit to Washington and the Tokyo metropolitan government confirmed the plan on Tuesday.
In a statement citing Ishihara, the Tokyo government said the islands were "extremely important" for Japan and offered great potential for development of natural resources and fisheries.
Japanese government spokesman said he was not aware of the plan and declined further comment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement that the islands were China's, repeating the government's long-held stance.
"Any unilateral action taken by Japan on the Diaoyu and nearby islands is illegal and invalid and cannot change the reality of China's ownership," Liu said.
Diplomatic ties between Beijing and Tokyo hit a low point in late 2010 after Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near the disputed islands, though they have improved since then.
In 2008, Beijing and Tokyo agreed in principle to jointly develop gas fields near the islands, but progress has been slow and Japan has accused China of drilling for gas in violation of the deal.
Kyodo news agency quoted Ishihara as saying that talks with owners were already under way and that a deal could be wrapped up by the end of the year.
Ishihara, elected for a fourth term a year ago, is no stranger to controversy, admired by some for his blunt style, a rarity in Japan, and lambasted by others for a tendency to offend.
Last year, he was forced to apologize for suggesting that the March 11 earthquake and tsunami were "divine punishment" for the "egoism" of the Japanese people.
(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Nick Macfie)