Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going to China next month as the government continues to push trade with Asian countries as an alternative to dealing with the U.S.

The visit to the country, over the second week of February, will be Harper's second. His first was in December 2009, on the heels of a visit to India.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Canada in June 2010.

Harper has spoken openly of looking more to Asia to expand trade, in particular for Canadian energy. A decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to delay approval for a major pipeline expansion through the country led to Harper talk about finding other customers for Canadian oil.

The prime minister announced the visit at a photo opportunity with China's ambassador to Canada, Zhang Junsai. The prime minister said he is looking forward to the visit. 

"Your visit will be very important, another highlight in our bilateral relations," Zhang replied.

Harper chided for delay

On his last visit, both Hu and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao chided Harper for waiting so long to visit.

"Five years is too long a time for China-Canada relations, and that's why there are comments in the media that your visit is one that should have taken place earlier," Wen said.

When Harper took office in 2006, his government didn't hold back on criticizing China's human rights record.

The Chinese government doesn't allow protests and controls all the media in the country. Human rights groups have documented widespread abuses, including imprisonment of human rights activists.

When Hu reportedly snubbed him at an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in November 2006, Harper hinted to reporters that the Chinese were trying to put conditions on the subjects that could be discussed during the meeting.

"I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide — and we do that — but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values," Harper said. "They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."

In 2007, Harper met with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader was in Ottawa. It drew a rebuke from a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, who advised Harper to "stop interfering with China's internal affairs."

On his 2009 visit, Harper said the two countries have a frank relationship and he wouldn't back away from criticism.

Canada exports more than $13 billion to China every year and imports more than $44 billion. Overall trade between the two countries more than tripled between 2001 and 2010, with the government opening more trade offices in Asia.

Canada has managed to regain some access to China's beef market after the country banned imports of Canadian beef in May 2003 over a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

China is Canada's second-largest merchandise trading partner.