KYOTO, Japan — The Japanese government struck a tentative agreement to buy three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are at the center of a heated territorial dispute with China, a source close to the talks said Thursday.
A government negotiator won a verbal agreement from the islands’ owners, a family living in suburban Tokyo, said the source, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations were still in a sensitive stage. He said the particulars of the deal, including a price, had yet to be decided, and that the deal could still fall through.
A deal would allow the government to nationalize three of the five major islands in the chain, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. It would not directly affect the more crucial issue of sovereignty. The islands are already administered by Japan but claimed by China and also Taiwan.
While the dispute has been simmering for decades, emotions flared in April after Tokyo’s outspoken rightist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, proposed that his city buy the islands. That prompted nationalists from China and Japan to stage separate landings on the islands last month, actions that led to anti-Japanese street demonstrations in China.
Ishihara’s proposal was apparently an effort to criticize Japan’s governing Democratic Party, which had sought closer ties with Beijing, for failing to take stronger action to defend against China’s increasingly assertive claims to the islands. Ishihara had said he wanted to bolster Japan’s control of the islands by erecting structures on them.
That prompted the national government to make a counteroffer to buy the islands, something that Japanese officials have cast as an effort to reduce tensions. They said if the national government took control, it would build no structures on the islands, and instead would strengthen coast guard patrols and other efforts to prevent activists from landing on them.
Still, China responded critically Wednesday to earlier reports of a purchase deal. In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, called the sale ‘‘illegal and invalid,’’ according to The Associated Press.
Major Japanese media outlets had reported Wednesday on a formal deal to sell the islands for about $26 million. However, a spokesman for the islands’ owners, the Kurihara family, said that while the family was in negotiations with the government, no formal agreement had been reached. The spokesman, Kazuyuki Shimooki, said the reports were based on leaks to the local media, possibly to pressure the family to make a final deal.
The national government already owns one of the islands, and the fifth remains in private hands. While the islands themselves are little more than barren rocks, scientists believe the sea floor around them holds rich petroleum deposits.
Japan says that China began to claim the islands only after those reserves were discovered.