Japan is beginning a new diplomatic initiative to build closer relations with Central Asian nations, which were part of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century and deeply influenced by China in centuries past.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso on Thursday unveiled what Tokyo hopes will be a new era in diplomatic and economic ties with strategically important countries in Central Asia, a region where Japan has had little influence.

In recent years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing has made a push to resume ties it once had with the landlocked Muslim states to its west.

In a policy speech, Aso unveiled what he called Japan's new "Silk Road Diplomacy," and said oil and gas from Central Asia are important for Japan.

Aso tells reporters that Japan does not import oil or gas directly from the region, but he sees that market as a source for a stable supply, if there is turmoil in the Middle East or supplies from other oil exporting countries become unreliable.

Next Monday, Aso is to hold talks here with his Central Asian counterparts.

Afghanistan's foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, also is to attend the meeting as an observer.

Foreign Ministry officials say the talks will focus on energy security, terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

Japanese officials also say Tokyo wants to counter the influence of Beijing and Moscow in the region.

Analyst Ariel Cohen, a Central Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says Japan has a lot of catching up to do.

"Japan is a laggard," he said. "It waited for way too long to get involved in Central Asia. It is much behind in its political involvement, in its economic involvement."

In his remarks Thursday, Foreign Minister Aso says his goal is to see Central Asia, Afghanistan and southwest Asia - with Japan's support - become a corridor of peace and stability, in harmony with international society.

The Heritage Foundation's Cohen says some of central Asia's savvy political leaders, such as Kazakhstan's president, will welcome Japan's new interest and deeper economic ties.

"They need to play a balancing game," he said. "They are playing a game, in which they want to maintain good relations with China and Russia - and the United States - and, additionally, an economically powerful, but distant player [Japan] is in their interest."

For Japan, analysts say, the ultimate goal is to avoid having the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping of the central Asian countries plus Russia and China, monopolize the region's energy resources.