Japanese lawmakers pushing for a tougher stance in a dispute with China over several uninhabited islands said Monday the country should allow a team of experts to travel there to study development possibilities and environmental issues.
The proposal is the latest in a series of moves by some influential Japanese to push their country's claims to the islands, which are called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. If carried out, it would likely heighten tensions with Beijing.
The idea was debated in a parliamentary hearing one day after an unofficial "fishing" trip to waters off the islands by a half-dozen national lawmakers. China has in the past warned Japan not to allow visits to the islands, which it claims are part of its sovereign territory.
Taiwan also claims the islands.
No decision was made at the hearing, but several speakers expressed support for an onsite study.
"We need to promote the development of the islands and the possibility of having people living there," Taro Kimura, a conservative lawmaker, told the hearing. "I support government approval for these missions."
Surrounded by rich fishing grounds, the islands are a flash point in diplomatic relations between Japan and China. Beijing temporarily froze trade and ministerial talks after a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels near the islands two years ago.
The rivalry heated up again in April, when Tokyo's influential and outspoken governor, Shintaro Ishihara, announced a plan to use public funds to buy several of the isles from a private Japanese citizen whom Japan says has legal ownership.
China doesn't recognize that deed, and Ishihara has acknowledged the move is largely intended to put pressure on the national government to play a bigger role in the islands' administration.
He told the hearing Monday that Tokyo has already received more than 1 billion yen ($12 million) in donations for the purchase, which is expected to cost between 2 and 3 billion yen.
Though Ishihara is not a member of parliament, he is a nationally recognized figure and his position is shared by a growing contingent of lawmakers who are concerned that China has in recent years strengthened its own claims to territories throughout the East and South China Seas.