In a belated but significant move amid increasingly murky relations among major players in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan and India are making last-minute preparations to inaugurate a high-level security forum.

Government sources said Friday that Tokyo and New Delhi are planning to hold the inaugural meeting of the forum in Tokyo later this month, although a date has not yet been fixed.

The meeting will be attended by senior foreign and defense ministry officials from both sides. Japan’s delegation will be headed by Kunihiko Makita, the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, the sources said.

The forum’s establishment was agreed upon when then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori met in New Delhi with his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, last August.

At that time, the two prime ministers reached a “global partnership” agreement to strengthen bilateral economic, political and other relations as well as enhance cooperation on a wide range of international issues.

As part of the agreement, Mori and Vajpayee agreed to set up a high-level regular forum for dialogue on security affairs, though they left details to be filled in later.

Although no specific agenda has apparently been set for the Japan-India security dialogue forum, several topics are expected to be discussed, among them China, the planned U.S. national missile defense system and India’s nuclear policy.

The planned first meeting of the security-dialogue forum comes as relations among the United States, Japan, China and Russia — four major powers in the Asia-Pacific region — have become increasingly uneasy, even thorny.

They also come as India is gaining global stature.

Relations between the U.S. and China have been strained over a spate of issues since Republican George W. Bush replaced Democrat Bill Clinton as U.S. president in January. Bush has been taking a harder line on China than his predecessor.

Among those issues are massive U.S. arms sales to Taiwan — which Beijing regards as a renegade province — the planned U.S. national missile defense system and the collision between a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the sea off the coast of the communist country.

Relations between Japan and China have also soured. A wedge was planted between the two in late April when former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui made a historic private visit to Japan.

That wedge was driven further into Tokyo-Beijing relations by the approval of a right-leaning history textbook by the Japanese education authorities and by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s declared plan to visit Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender of World War II. Yasukuni enshrines Japan’s war dead.

As for relations between Japan and the U.S., earlier this month Japanese media began reporting remarks made by Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka that have been critical of Bush, the planned U.S. missile defense system and the decades-old U.S.-Japan bilateral security alliance.

Officially, Tokyo says it “understands” the missile defense plan. China, Russia and many European countries are opposed to it, but sitting on the other side of a quiet but tense border with China, India is cozying up to the U.S. by refraining from outright criticism of the missile defense plan.

That border separates what at 1.3 billion strong is the world’s most populous communist state from the world’s largest democracy; India has 1 billion people.

While India has always been seen as having geographic importance, a rapidly growing information-technology industry, backed by an abundant and affluent pool of software engineers, is giving it economic might and political capital as well.

The U.S., Russia and other nations have been scurrying to strengthen ties with India — even the Mori-Vajpayee agreement can be seen in this light. Clinton also visited New Delhi last year, as did Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now the Bush administration may completely lift economic sanctions imposed by his predecessor to protest India’s nuclear test in May 1998.

That test was part of tit-for-tat nuclear device-detonations India and Pakistan set off. They sparked an international outcry and raised deep concern about a nuclear arms race — and even about a possible nuclear war — in volatile South Asia.

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