Emmanuel Macron. Picture: REUTERS
Emmanuel Macron. Picture: REUTERS

Djibouti —  French President Emmanuel Macron visited the country’s oldest and biggest foreign military base on Tuesday as he looks to push back against China’s increasing influence in Africa. 

He will meet troops at a French military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa less than two weeks before he welcomes China President Xi Jinping to Paris for a state visit.

Macron picked the former trading outpost with access to the Indian Ocean to signal his resistance to the global reach of China’s ambitions. His three-day tour will also take in Ethiopia and Kenya, where China is investing hugely.

“Macron’s message is double,” said Mathieu Duchatel, head of Asian studies at the Institut Montaigne in Paris. “He is explicitly pushing forward the Indo-Pacific strategy along with the US and others to respond to the military emergence of China. And he’s going there to respond to the huge infrastructure push China is making with the Belt and Road initiative.”

The transatlantic alliance might be going through a rough patch as President Donald Trump insists on putting America first, but Macron is still more comfortable with France’s historical ally than the emerging power in Asia.

The 41-year-old president believes Beijing is aiming to reshape the global order in its interests, according to officials in his office. He has made countering China’s growing economic and military power a priority for this year.

Djibouti offers a microcosm of the challenge he faces. France has had a military presence in the nation of a million people since granting it independence in 1977 and has about 1,500 soldiers based there. The US opened its own base in 2002 and has about 5,000 troops.

The arrival of China in 2017 transformed the situation — its facility could eventually hold up to 10,000 military personnel. China says its purpose is to deter piracy in the shipping lane off Somalia, to back up UN missions and to support aid operations.

“But the deployment of the marines there leaves little doubt about the possible use of the base,” said Duchatel.

China Merchants Group took over Djibouti’s container port of Doraleh and plans to invest up to $15bn over the next 17 years to expand the energy terminals and make it its entry point to East Africa. Onward transit to Ethiopia will be facilitated by the rail line China built to Addis Ababa in 2018.

An official close to President Ismail Omar Guelleh said China’s presence is everywhere in Djibouti and Beijing’s vision for the country as the gateway to Africa has completely won the country over. He said the French by comparison come with no money and no strategy for Djibouti.

French officials said China’s infrastructure investments are a “Trojan Horse” – they initially look like they are designed to support the country’s economic development but may ultimately give Beijiing control of key strategic assets if Djibouti cannot meet its debt payments.

“When an investment is made with too much debt, with a lack of visibility over the financial conditions, it can look good in the short term and it can allow you to do certain projects,” Macron said at a media conference with Guelleh on Tuesday. “But it can be bad in the medium and long term.”

The official close to Guelleh said he is not concerned about the debt. He said it is a bet on the country’s future as a trading hub and would prove successful.

As well as warning of the risks of the so-called debt trap, Macron is seeking to offer an alternative to Chinese investment with his trip. 

French telecom company Orange and oil producer Total see potential markets in the region and shipping giant CMA-CGM seeks to open a hub in Ethiopia.

As Ethiopia opens its economy, French players may be prepared to invest in former state monopolies, one official said, including Orange in Ethio Telecom. In Kenya, Transdev is trying to win a local commuting train contract and Peugeot is seeking access to the local car procurement market with its “assembled in Kenya’’ label.

With Chinese companies focused on infrastructure, France may have an opportunity to get involved in telecoms, water and power markets, according to Tony Chafer, a professor of French studies at the University of Portsmouth.

“Kenya and Ethiopia are fast-growing economies where the Chinese are very active,” he said. “It’s about putting France out there.”