With Bangladesh visit, Macron caps France's Asian pivot

French President Emmanuel Macron meets Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh at her office in Dhaka

By Michel Rose

DHAKA (Reuters) - Whether he’s lobbying for Airbus to sell aircraft to Bangladesh or scouring for rare earths in Mongolia, French President Emmanuel Macron is on the offensive in Asia, pitching France as a useful alternative to bigger powers.

After two days of high-level talks with G20 leaders in New Delhi, where he was treated to lunch with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Macron set off for neighbouring Bangladesh, a fast-growing South Asian nation of 170 million people.

The two-day stopover in Dhaka was part of a French strategy to target mid-sized countries in a region where superpowers such as China, Russia or the U.S. are jostling for influence.

"In a region facing new imperialism, we want to propose a third way," Macron told Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after landing in a sweltering Dhaka late on Sunday.

"All our strategy is focused on strengthening the independence and the strategic autonomy of our friends to give them the 'freedom of sovereignty'," Macron said.

The French leader, who Hasina called "a breath of fresh air in international politics", was hot on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited Bangladesh a few days before the G20 summit.

Russia is building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, a $13 billion project financed by a Russian government loan.

The French are also trying to sell their nuclear expertise, even if a power plant contract is a more distant prospect.

They are making more progress in the aerospace sector, however. In a country long dominated by Boeing, Macron on Monday clinched a deal for Airbus to sell 10 A-350 aircraft to national flagship carrier Biman Bangladesh Airlines Ltd.

The Bangladesh trip comes after a series of short but high-level trips by Macron this year to Asian nations such as Mongolia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka.

Macron, who launched France's Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, the first European country to do so, has talked of Europe as a "third way" in a region increasingly under the sway of China-U.S. rivalry.

"We’re a country of 60 million, so of course we can’t compete head-on with China," a French diplomat told Reuters.

"But although the U.S. are our allies, we have our own interest and can help countries in the region diversifying their alliances, so they’re not reliant on one country alone."

(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Mark Heinrich)