Prime Minister Paul Martin opened a two-day visit to China on Thursday, praising increasing economic links between the two countries but reserving any criticism of China's human rights record for private meetings with government officials.

The prime minister is in China for trade and investment meetings, in conjunction with a mission of more than 300 Canadian business leaders.

An honour guard of the People's Liberation Army played the Chinese national anthem as Martin appeared with Premier Wen Jiabao in a ballroom of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

With the Canadian business leaders looking on, Martin said the world has long known China would become an economic and global power someday.

"We are here today because we know that that day has come," he said. "It is here now."

China is now Canada's second-biggest trading partner, after the United States, exchanging $23 billion in bilateral trade in the year 2003.

Human rights raised in private

Agreements signed Thursday commit Canada and China to co-operate on cultural projects, find ways to meet Kyoto targets, and encourage resource companies in both countries to form partnerships.

At the public signing event, Wen praised Martin and spoke of the mutual trust and respect between Canada and China.

Leading up to the private meetings with Wen and other leaders, Martin had said he would make use of that trust by raising Canada's concerns about China's repression of religious and political freedom, as well as its use of forced labour camps.

Martin later said that he privately raised the case of two Canadian journalists refused travel visas by Chinese authorities because their network is critical of the Chinese government.

Wen listened, but was reported to have said nothing in response to Martin's concerns. Afterwards, the Canadian ambassador to China delivered a list of specific human rights violations that Canada wants resolved.

Neither man mentioned human rights in a series of public statements, but a joint release issued at the end of the day said they value "the annual bilateral human rights dialogue held between Canada and China, which contributes to a greater mutual understanding of human rights issues."

Speaking to reporters, Martin said he believed some progress has been made.

"The fact is, there has been considerable progress," said Martin. "There's no doubt we'd like to see the Chinese government go further."

Martin heads to Hong Kong

Martin left Canada late Friday night to begin a nine-day Asian trip that has already taken him to Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Japan.

After his meetings with China's leaders in Beijing, he will address a dinner hosted by the Canada-China Business Council.

Martin will continue his visit to China by meeting with President Hu Jintao on Friday.

He will wrap up his Asian journey in Hong Kong, where he will have more political and business meetings and attend a remembrance ceremony at a cemetery where many Canadians soldiers from the Second World War are buried.