TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has agreed to buy disputed East China Sea islets, claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing, from their private Japanese owners, Japanese media said on Wednesday, a move likely to fuel tensions between Asia's two largest economies.
The uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have long been a source of friction. Japan and China have competing territorial claims to the islets and surrounding fishing areas and potentially rich gas deposits.
The government will buy the islets for 2.05 billion yen ($26.15 million) and the owners will sign a contract soon, the Japanese dailies Asahi and Yomiuri said.
The planned purchase of the islands, controlled by Japan and claimed by Taiwan as well, will be approved in a cabinet meeting as early as mid-September, the newspapers said.
Tokyo's nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, proposed a plan in April to buy three of the five uninhabited islands, which are owned by the Kurihara family.
The family bought the islands beginning in 1972 from another family who Japanese media say had managed them since the 1890s. An older brother owns three of the isles and a sister the fourth. Those four are leased by the Japanese government, which owns the fifth in the chain.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura stopped short of confirming the latest media reports, though he said the government and the island owners were holding discussions.
Beijing repeated on Wednesday its claims to indisputable sovereignty over the islands.
"China's will and determination to defend its territorial sovereignty is unshakable," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. "China is closely watching the situation and will take necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty."
The row is part of a broader series of territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas that have set China against U.S. regional allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
On Tuesday, China warned the United States not to get involved in the disputes, just as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing pledging to send a strong message on the need to calm regional tension.
The Japanese coast guard last month detained Chinese activists who sailed from Hong Kong and landed on the East China Sea islands, triggering anti-Japanese demonstrations in China.
Last week, a man ripped a Japanese flag from a car carrying Japan's ambassador in Beijing in the latest flare-up of the territorial row.
The Tokyo metropolitan government sent a team of officials to waters near the islets at the weekend to conduct a survey.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Tetsushi Kajimoto and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait and Ron Popeski)