Time was, according to a former diplomat who saw it happen, that Pierre Trudeau and Indira Gandhi would meditate together.

Fifteen minutes would go by, he marvelled, as the two prime ministers communed in total silence while their sherpas shuffled their shoes outside.

It's a great story, but, today, our relations with Asia are a lot less spiritual. Now, it's strictly business — and Canada, the experts say, is the one outside, knocking on the door with the sherpas.

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Welcome, world. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, raises a glass of orange juice during a visit to Tokyo. (Associated Press)

 

According to Dimitri Soudas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cheerful spokesman, the glass is half full. Harper's current action-packed trip to Singapore and India will unlock the "tremendous amount of untapped potential" in Canada's relationship with Asia.

Well, there's no argument about the "untapped" part.

In fact, to know just how tremendously untapped that potential is, consider Bermuda — yes, Bermuda.

The Atlantic speck of a nation is currently investing in India at a faster pace than Canada, says the Canada-India Business Council of Toronto. So is Sweden. So is Belgium.

There has been "mutual neglect" between Canada and India, says Rana Sarkar, president of the council.

Indeed, while the rest of the world is rushing to tap into the astonishing rise of a market of 1.2 billion people, Canada is missing the boat, Sarkar says.

That same view — "no strategic vision" — can be heard over at the Asia-Pacific Foundation from president Yuen Pao Woo.

All aboard

Missing the boat, when we have a million Canadians of Indian origin?

Terry Milewski, the CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, is travelling with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his five-day trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Development conference in Singapore and then on to India.

Well, a senior Canadian official agrees delicately, Canada's relations with India have been "cool" for 35 years. Today, cool won't cut it.

Forget the fact that India charged into the nuclear bomb club in 1974 by diverting Canadian civilian technology.

Forget the super-cool relations of the 1980s, when Sikh separatists rampaged in Canada to the outrage of the Indian government — and a ticking bomb left Vancouver aboard Air India Flight 182.

Twenty-five years later, we are scrambling to get aboard the Indian express and, yes, to sign a nuclear co-operation agreement. After the U.S., after Russia and after France and the European Union have already done so.

Where's the beef?

Harper's trip kicks off with the APEC summit in Singapore, where, inevitably, the big boys of the Pacific Rim will overshadow him in a packed house of 21 leaders all seeking the same thing: trade, and lots of it.

The leaders of the U.S., China, Russia and Japan will easily attract the attention of Asian business and media.

These leaders know that, while the West struggles to generate any growth at all, many of these emerging Asian economies are projected to grow next year by five to seven per cent.

So, for new exports and jobs, Canadians need to look to the vast, varied and hard-to-crack markets of Asia.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, leave Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 12, for the APEC summit in Singapore and then three days in India. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But it's a slog. What happened, for example, to that promised free trade deal with South Korea? It's at an "impasse" over Canadian beef, apparently.

Across the region, says the knowledgeable former Conservative trade minister, David Emerson, "we are falling behind countries like Australia."

It's not easy to get Canadian companies "pumped on going to India," he says. Besides, he adds, much of the Indian diaspora in Canada is from only one state — the Punjab. Across the rest of that titanic and complex nation, hardly anyone speaks Punjabi.

Staking a claim

In the face of so many obstacles, it's no wonder that Harper's program is "aggressive," at least as Soudas sees it.

The prime minister is racing from multilateral to bilateral meetings, from presidents to trade councils, from speeches to photo-ops, from a Bollywood studio to the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi to the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Meanwhile, what's going on at home?

Indian students in Canada: only 4,000. In Australia, it's 80,000. No offence, but let's hope we're at least ahead of Bermuda in attracting the next generation of employers and exporters.

No surprise at our current interest, of course. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the architect of his country's boom, just announced that he hopes to spend billions rebuilding its creaking infrastructure.

At the same time, Canada's late start in the Asian gold rush is at least recognised by all parties. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has urged the government to get busy in India and China, and Harper, after being grounded for a while by Ignatieff's election threats, is now in the hunt.

In December, he'll embark on a second Asian trip, to China and South Korea, where Canada also has some notable advantages and not just in resources.

These would include our large, educated and business-minded immigrant communities with roots in Asia, an enviably sound banking system and a growing "Pacific Gateway" in Vancouver.

But it's going to be a grinding and ruthless competition for business. Nobody else is failing to tap that untapped potential. And meditating about it surely won't work anymore.