The United States, Japan and Australia plan to hold their first-ever summit to discuss North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s military build-up, Japanese government officials said.

The three countries’ leaders would meet in Sydney on the sidelines of the APEC summit due to open on Sept 8, the officials said.

They said the three-way meeting would be aimed at ensuring security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Details have yet to be sorted out, but we hope that such a meeting will further cement security coordination and cooperation between the three countries,” said a government official.

“North Korea’s nuclear development programs and China’s military build-up are expected to be among the wide-ranging topics of their discussions.”

Staunch US allies Australia and Japan agreed in March to expand cooperation in such areas as counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper said the three leaders were expected to agree to urge China to ensure the transparency of its military build-up.

The US Defense Department said in a report in May that while Beijing seemed to be focused on the Taiwan Strait as a potential flashpoint, it also appeared to be looking to project its growing military strength elsewhere.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has threatened to attack the island if it moves too far toward formal independence.

Beijing has said it would increase defense spending by 17.8% to about $45 billion in 2007, but US intelligence officials say China’s total real military-related spending for the year could be between $85 billion and $125 billion.

Australia is keen to soothe concerns by major trading partner China that Canberra is joining Washington and Tokyo to try to contain Beijing’s growing clout.

Washington also appears eager not to agitate China.

The United States said joint naval exercises with several nations in the region, but not China, were not aimed at isolating Beijing.

The navies of India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and the United States will hold the wargames in the Bay of Bengal, the first such joint exercises by the five nations.

At the Sydney meeting, the leaders of the United States, Japan and Australia would also discuss ways to prompt North Korea to “disable” its nuclear programs swiftly, another Japanese government official said.

“Depending on the progress in the six-party talks by the time they meet, they will focus their discussion on disablement of North Korea’s nuclear development programs,” he said.

Last month, North Korea shut its Yongbyon reactor complex that produces weapons-grade plutonium in return for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil under a Feb. 13 deal struck by North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The next step of the disarmament deal hammered out between the six parties calls on Pyongyang to “disable” its nuclear facilities. But the last round of nuclear talks ended last month without a target date for that. (Reuters)