A Japanese Coast Guard ship, center, earlier this week attempts to stop a Taiwan Coast Guard ship as it escorts a Taiwanese fishing boat near the disputed East China Sea islets called Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyutai in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.
TOKYO—Japan’s prime minister said the national government is considering purchasing a set of islets at the center of a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing, a move that could further strain ties between Asia’s two largest economies.
The move by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government to weigh nationalizing the privately owned property is the latest salvo in a longstanding diplomatic stand-off with China, which also claims sovereignty over the Japanese-administered islands.
“There is no question that the Senkakus are an integral part of our country’s territory,” Mr. Noda told reporters Saturday during a public appearance in Fukushima Prefecture, using Japan’s preferred name for the island chain that China calls Diaoyu.
“From the viewpoint of how to maintain and manage the Senkakus in a calm and stable manner, we are making comprehensive studies on the matter by keeping in touch with the owner,” he said.
Local media reported Saturday that the idea was floated in a meeting Friday between Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who has led a fund-raising campaign to buy the islands from the Japanese family that owns them, and Akihisa Nagashima, Mr. Noda’s special adviser for foreign affairs.
Neither Gov. Ishihara nor Mr. Nagashima were available for comment Saturday, but an official at the prime minister’s office confirmed the central government is in talks with Tokyo and hasn’t ruled out an outright purchase of the islands.
“There is engagement between the prime minister’s office and Gov. Ishihara,” said the Japanese official, who declined to be named.
While uninhabited and privately owned—Japan currently renews a lease on them annually—the islands are considered strategically valuable. They also sit astride rich fishing grounds and waters thought to contain large deposits of natural gas, located in the East China Sea between Japan’s southern Okinawa Prefecture and Taiwan.
Gov. Ishihara has stepped up pressure on the central government in recent months amid concerns the islets are vulnerable to China’s growing sphere of influence. Those fears were heightened after a September 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coast-guard cutter that put the quietly simmering issue on the front pages of both nations’ newspapers and triggered dueling protest marches.
Officials at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday.
The Senkaku matter is just one of many maritime disputes that both countries have with neighbors. Japan is at odds with South Korea and Russia about the disposition of several nearby islands. Beijing’s claims to a series of islets in the South China Sea has been contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.