This June 2011 photo shows Kubajima, one of the five main islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. (AP)

Japan called back its ambassador to China on Sunday, the result of a reignited territorial dispute between the East Asian neighbors.

The uninhabited and long-contested Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan but claimed by China, have again turned into a flash point amid Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s recent proposal to buy the territory from a private Japanese landowner. China sent three ships to the area last week as an apparent response, prompting a protest from Japan.

Ambassador Uichiro Niwa returned temporarily to Tokyo to discuss the dispute with Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, Niwa told reporters at the airport in Beijing. A Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said Niwa was scheduled to return to Beijing on Monday.

The discussions highlight the risk of Japan’s potential plan to nationalize the islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan. China has reacted sharply to the idea, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying Beijing would “resolutely safeguard” its “sacred territory.”

Japan’s central government rents the islands from a landowner, but it leaves the land almost entirely untouched, a means to avoid angering Beijing. Japan has had to rethink its hands-off strategy, though, in the wake of an April pledge by Tokyo’s nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to buy the islands and “protect” them from Chinese intrusion. The Tokyo metropolitan government has set up a bank account to collect donations for the purchase.

Senkaku Islands (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Japanese news media say that Noda prefers to have the central government buy the islands, as a way to fend off Ishihara and maintain relative calm. Were Ishihara in control of the Senkaku Islands, unnamed central government sources have told Japanese newspapers, there would be a high risk of provocation.

Niwa warned that Ishihara’s plan could trigger an “extremely grave crisis,” according to a June interview with the Financial Times.

Niwa later apologized for the remarks, which prompted some in parliament to ask for his firing.

In China, meanwhile, editorials in nationalist media outlets have asked Japan to back away from any plans to buy the islands, which are known here as the Diaoyu.

“From [the] Chinese perspective, no matter whether the Tokyo metropolitan government or Japanese government purchases the Diaoyu Islands or nationalizes them by other means, it’s still a step to consolidate the legality of Japan’s control and jurisdiction,” Zhou Yongsheng, deputy director of the Japan Study Center at China Foreign Affairs University, wrote last week in the Global Times. “China won’t indulge such behavior, and will inevitably take strong countermeasures.”

Any further escalation risks a replay of 2010, when a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese coast guard boats and Japan detained the captain for more than two weeks. An enraged Beijing briefly cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Tokyo and withheld exports of rare-earth elements, used for many of Japan’s high-tech products.