Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced a plan to head back to China in February, where he's expected to discuss matters ranging from trade deals to human rights.

The timing for Harper's trip comes as Canada looks eastward to sell natural resources and oil products.

But the trip also comes at the tail end of a brutal year for Chinese crackdowns, raising concern about the communist country's human rights record.

Harper was criticized for waiting too long before visiting China after he first moved into the prime minister's office back in 2006. Following his eventual visit in December 2009, however, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao formally invited him to return.

The prime minister indicated late last year that he was indeed ready to go back, but had yet to set a date with Beijing.

The Chinese president paid an official visit to Canada in June, 2010.

So far, Harper and Hu's meetings have yielded a deal to get Canadian beef products back into the Chinese market after trade had been cut off since Canada reported its first case of mad cow disease in 2003.

The Canadian government also trumpets an agreement on jointly combating crime, as well as a bilateral agreement to cooperate on the development of "cleantech" water, waste water and green building projects as other significant achievements.

Their upcoming meeting, however, is expected to focus on Harper's stated desire to join the Asia-Pacific free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as the potential for more Chinese investment in Canadian energy projects.

The prime minister has opened the door to increased energy trade with China in light of the political wrangling around the proposed Keystone XL pipeline intended to carry Alberta's oilsands-derived crude to U.S. refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent," Harper recently told CTV News.

Peter Harder from the Canada China Business Council said that the announcement is good news because "it demonstrates a maturation and a regularity" to relations.

Harder told CTV's Power Play that the announcement implies that annual, high-level meetings between the two nations are a possibility -- something that's good for economic questions.

"The political relationship sets the economic agenda" he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for Canada to say ‘we can do more in our bilateral relationship.'"

Harder's group has even pushed for a free-trade agreement with China, which has emerged as Canada's second largest trading partner behind the U.S.

On the political front, Canada can also play an important role in raising human rights issues with China.

"It's welcome from a human rights perspective as well," said Amnesty International spokesperson Alex Neve.

He added that 2011 was a terrible year for China's human rights record, because officials in the nation feared a homegrown version of the Arab Spring.

"The crackdown was immediate and intense," said Neve, pointing to a rise in arrests, suicides and self-immolations among activists.

But with Canada taking a greater role in China's economic future, there is a greater ability to talk human rights at the highest levels of government.

"When those sorts of exchanges aren't happening, then a valuable channel for putting serious human rights issues in front of the Chinese government is missing."