TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (Reuters) — Japan and Uzbekistan signed deals worth more than $8.5 billion Sunday, covering the communications, energy, transport and other sectors, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said after meeting visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan will finance around $5 billion of those deals, Karimov said.

One of the projects aims to explore the Central Asian nation's hydrocarbon reserves jointly with the Uzbek state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz. Another will modernize a power plant generating electricity for the Uzbek capital Tashkent.

Abe is visiting the five former Soviet nations of Central Asia, the first trip in nine years by a Japanese premier to the region where Japanese companies are active and where both Russia and China are vying for influence.

Uzbekistan is the region's most populous nation with 31 million people and a major producer of cotton, gold and natural gas.

In neighboring Turkmenistan, which holds the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, Abe oversaw Friday the signing of deals worth over $18 billion, mainly in the chemicals sector and power station construction.

(Reporting by Muhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Susan Fenton)