Canadian oil and business executives are well-represented in the delegation travelling to China with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with oil exports expected to be high on the government's agenda.

A delegation assigned to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver includes eight mining or oil and gas companies.

Harper's own delegation includes a wider business focus, with top executives from Air Canada, SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier, Manulife and Scotiabank.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz will also visit the country.

The delegation left early Monday afternoon and will be in China from Feb. 8 to 11.

China's total investment in Canada used to add up to millions of dollars, but since 2009 has increased to up to $20 billion.

It has come with a shift in this country from relying solely on the United States as the only buyer of Canadian oil and gas — something Harper emphasized repeatedly when U.S. President Barack Obama delayed a decision and then denied a permit to TransCanada for its Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would have sent oil from Alberta through the U.S. to the coast of Texas.

Peter Harder, president of the Canada-China Business Council and a former top official at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the United States will always be Canada's No. 1 trading partner, but China will be No. 2.

"And the question is how big that No. 2 will be," he said.

China 'big player' in the world

China is a big player in the world, no matter the subject, NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said.

"It won't just be a matter of exchanging pipelines for pandas," she said, referring to rumours the trip will also finalize the loan of giant pandas for Canadian zoos. "The dialogue will be broader than that."

The NDP isn't opposed to trade, she said, but "we do think the prime minister needs to talk about human rights in particular."

Alice Wong, Harper's minister of state for seniors, is also on the trip and is bringing several representatives of Canada's Chinese community, including Chinese-Canadian Christian leaders, as part of her delegation.

Reporter denied visa

But not everyone planning to travel with the Canadian delegation made it on the trip. A reporter for the Epoch Times was denied a visa to visit China.

Matthew Little, who is an accredited member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, had a spot reserved on the plane along with other Canadian reporters, but couldn't get permission from China to enter the country.

In a statement to CBC News, Epoch Times's Canadian publisher Cindy Gu said it's disappointing but not surprising that Little wasn't granted a visa.

"The Epoch Times has published many articles critical of the Chinese regime, and its repression of basic freedoms. The regime has continually made efforts to block our reporting," she said.

The Epoch Times was founded by Falun Gong practitioners and doesn't shrink from criticizing the Chinese government over its human rights abuses. The original Chinese-language Epoch Times started publishing in response to a need for uncensored news coverage in China, according to the company's website. It publishes in 17 languages around the world.

With files from CBC's Susan Lunn