Japan’s government has rebuked its ambassador to China after he warned that plans by the Tokyo municipal government to buy islands claimed by Beijing could spark an “extremely grave crisis”.

The warning from ambassador Uichiro Niwa, made in an interview with the Financial Times, has highlighted worries about plans by Tokyo’s nationalist governor to purchase islands in the disputed Senkaku group from their private owner. The islands are considered one of East Asia’s most dangerous flashpoints.

But Osamu Fujimura, the government’s top spokesman, told a news conference on Thursday that Mr Niwa had been cautioned by the foreign ministry over his remarks, which were “personal opinions” that did not represent the government’s position.

Japanese ministers have appeared unsure how to respond to the plan announced by Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo governor, to buy three islands in the Senkaku group, which is administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls the islands the Diaoyu.

Such a purchase would end a long-standing arrangement under which the central government rents the islands and bans landings on them in order to avoid friction with Beijing.

Mr Ishihara, one of Japan’s most high-profile rightwing politicians, has opposed this conciliatory approach and has begun gathering private donations to help Tokyo buy the islands when the central government’s lease expires next year. Tokyo said it had received 70,000 donations totalling more than Y1bn ($12.6m) in little more than a month.

Any effort to develop the islands would be sure to infuriate Chinese leaders. Anger in Beijing over Japan’s arrest in 2010 of a fishing boat captain who clashed with the Japanese coastguard in the area led to months of diplomatic and economic disruption.

In his interview with the FT, Mr Niwa said the Tokyo governor’s plans could put at risk “decades” of effort to improve relations. Both Japan and China should put effort into getting along with each other, rather than into quarrelling, the ambassador said. “I hope Mr Ishihara will adopt this perspective,” he said.

However, Mr Fujimura said the government was still working to understand Mr Ishihara’s intentions.

The government was “considering various ways to continue administering the Senkaku islands in a calm and stable manner”, Mr Fujimura said.

One option being considered by the central government is to buy the islands itself, an approach the main opposition Liberal Democratic party is considering including in its manifesto for Japan’s next general election.

However, even a central government purchase would be likely to anger China, which has in recent years been increasingly assertive in pushing its claim to sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu group and other disputed maritime territories.

Japanese differences over how to deal with the Senkaku islands come amid rising friction over territorial disputes in the waters around China.

In April, a stand-off between Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and a Philippine naval vessel near a contested shoal led to diplomatic protests from Manila, while Vietnam has accused China of sabotaging its marine exploration vessels.

Such incidents have boosted support among China’s neighbours for US plans to increase its naval forces in the region.

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