The Japanese government has bought three uninhabitated islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with China, officials said on Tuesday, furthering heightening tensions between Asia’s two economic giants.
Beijing has already sent two warships to patrol the area around the islands in the East China Sea, according to state media.
Tokyo paid a Japanese family it recognises as the owner just over two billion yen (20 million euros). Public broadcaster NHK said the contract had already been signed.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimuru said it wanted to ensure “peace and stability” in the region.
He said Japan does not want to affect its relationship with China with the purchase of what it calls the Senkaku islands.
Media reports in Japan, however, have speculated the move is to prevent Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara from buying the three islets.
Ishihara had floated the possibility of snapping them up and developing them.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that any unilateral action taken by Japan was “invalid.”
Beijing argues Japan’s claim is merely a legacy of its invasion of China in the 19th century.
It refers to the group as the Diaoyu Islands, which are rich in fish stocks and close to maritime oil and gas fields.