03/20/2012 05:23 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper to visit tsunami-ravaged Sendai region of Japan during Asia visit

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will pay his respects to the victims of last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami during his trip to Asia this week, his second to the Far East in two months.

He'll be talking business with Japan's prime minister and is widely expected to announce the opening of free-trade negotiations with the island nation.

A similar discussion is expected in Thailand, where Harper will meet with that country's business community, which this week signalled its interest in Canada's natural gas wealth.

Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the prime minister, says there is much eagerness to expand economic ties beyond the already deepening relationships with China and India.

"There's a lot of demand for Canadian resources," MacDougall said Tuesday. "Deepening ties with Japan and with the Asia-Pacific region in general will generate real benefits for Canadians in terms of jobs, growth and long-term prosperity here in Canada."

Harper will also attend a nuclear security summit in South Korea, where 53 world leaders are expected to focus not only on questions of weapons proliferation, but on the need to better oversee the peaceful use of atomic energy.

The subject was underscored last year following the disaster in Japan when the tsunami wrecked the Fukushima power plant.

The prime minister's visit to the northern Sendai region comes just after the first anniversary of the disaster on March 11 and is meant to express solidarity with the people of the region, said MacDougall.

He highlighted the range of ongoing international programs meant to round up loose nuclear material and other items that can be used in weapons of mass destruction, something Canadian taxpayers have quietly contributed $820 million towards since 2002.

Although, when it comes to nuclear issues, MacDougall conceded that most of the attention is focused on rogue nations like Iran and North Korea — a thorny topic that's bound to come up. "It's unavoidable the subject will be raised, but I think the summit will work at stopping proliferation and securing (nuclear materials)," he said.

The trip comes within a month of Harper's trip to China, where the primary focus was on improving relations and opening up Canadian oil and gas to the energy-hungry country.

While in Thailand, the prime minister is expected to receive an update on that country's efforts to put an end to human smuggling. Many illegal migrant networks have used the South Asian country as a transit point.

Harper and the Thai prime minister are expected to announce the launch of a study to see whether a free-trade arrangement between the two countries is feasible.